How to avoid getting scammed on Craigslist

Craigslist Porsche 911

If you own a classic car, there's a good chance you've bought and sold parts on Craigslist. As a modern-day forum for classified ads, it's fantastic. How else would you be able to find a cast iron dual-quad intake manifold or Pontiac OHC inline-six within a few hundred miles of your home? Because it's Internet-based, Craigslist, like eBay, opens up your search possibilities in a way that was never possible with the old paper classifieds. You can find nearly anything, nearly anywhere.

Unfortunately that openness has its downside. Notably, it dissolves the invisible barrier between your concrete, sunlit world and the shadowy nether region of Internet scammers. There are ways, however, to protect yourself and your hard-earned money.

Personally, I often use Craigslist to sell parts and, sometimes, cars. With nearly every ad I post comes correspondence from would-be scammers. In the past, they've been the garden variety, "Dear sir, I am wish to purchase the item you have for sale and wish to wire you the funds immediately. Please send your personal information so I may complete the transaction sir."

Recently scammers have upped their game and are now armed with clever new ways to engage potential prey. The sheer volume of scam messages tells me that their strategy is something of a scattergun approach. For instance, when I renew 10 Craigslist ads at once, I'll often get 10 text messages, at around the same time, all in the same style. Sometimes, I retort with a snappy comeback, as in this interaction over a pair of old cylinder heads:

Craigslist Chevy Corvette
Craigslist

Scammer: Good day

Me: Good day, citizen.

Scammer: Am Mr Gillermo Hernandez the Facebook board of director it's nice meeting you... Am here to pass a vital information to you now

Me: Ok, vital signs. Great. What's your pulse, blood pressure, respirations? IS THE PATIENT STABLE, MAN?!!

Scammer: Am here to pass a vital information to you now

Me: So you said. Last oral intake? Meds?

Scammer: please am here for business. Before i proceed i would like to know if she have been contacted by any our Facebook agent in regard of your unclaimed winnings??

Me: Winnings, eh? Sounds like she's gonna make it! Phew! I thought I was going to have to phone the undertaker.

Scammer: I have instruction to send you winnings. please send name, address, sex, phone number and bank to wire money

Me: Name: Chauncey V. Oglethorpe III; Address: Boiler Room One, Empire State Building, New York, N.Y.; Sex: Yes, please; Phone number: (509) 555-1212; Bank: A large coffee can in the old school locker where I keep most of my belongings.

Scammer: yes thank you sir i am sending wire moneys. Do you have bank number informations?

Me: Well, there's a bank around the corner with a phone. Would you like their number? I'll have to get dressed, though, it's cold outside, not warm like it is here in my boiler room.

Craigslist VW Bus
Craigslist

This went on for a while, and the scammer actually got a little peeved with me for straying from the main topic of conversation—my winnings. On the one hand I felt bad for whoever it was (based on what we know about the working conditions in, say, Russia's state-sponsored hacker labs) I can't even imagine the misery of working at a scam center, or even as a freelance scammer.

I was still annoyed, though. Every time I post an ad on Craigslist, bogus text messages and emails pour in. (As I write this, a few poorly-worded texts from dubious area codes regarding some parts ads I just renewed are rolling in.)

But like everyone else who uses Craigslist, or any online forum for that matter, I have to be careful, and can't make the assumption that intellect alone will protect me from getting duped. Everyone has brain farts now and again, and at times the scammers can be quite convincing. Case in point: I had a car listed on Craigslist recently, and received a call on my cell phone.

"Hello," a male voice said. Then, the line went dead. A minute later, I received a text: "Sorry, lost signal. Am interested in the Subaru."

He had my attention. So I texted him back. He asked if I would send a vehicle report and directed me to a website that would run the car's VIN number. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, "Hm. What's wrong with Carfax?" The answer was clear once I went to the website, which wanted my credit card number to proceed. I Googled the website the scammer had recommended, and sure enough, it was a front for credit card fraudsters. But it had looked legit. If I had been tired or feeling mentally lazy or whatever, it would have been very easy to just go through with it. Click, click, click. Done. There goes my financial information.

Craigslist 1958 Lloyd Alexander
Craigslist

That's why it's important to remember to fact-check everything you consume on the Internet, especially when it involves submitting personal or financial information. Scammers have gotten so good that they can even make a fraudulent page that looks just like PayPal. Know what happens when you enter your login information? They might has well have an open invite to your bank account.

Craigslist offers the following advice on its site:

  • Deal locally, face-to-face. Follow this one rule and avoid 99 percent of scam attempts.
  • Do not extend payment to anyone you have not met in person.
  • Beware offers involving shipping - deal with locals you can meet in person.
  • Never wire funds (e.g. Western Union) - anyone who asks you to is a scammer.
  • Don't accept cashier/certified checks or money orders - banks cash fakes, then hold you responsible.
  • Transactions are between users only, no third party provides a "guarantee".
  • Never give out financial info (bank account, social security, paypal account, etc).
  • Do not rent or purchase sight-unseen—that amazing "deal" may not exist.
  • Refuse background/credit checks until you have met landlord/employer in person.

Paypal also lists things to look out for on its website, and although most Craigslist transactions involve cash (or should, at any rate), much of the communication regarding a listing is typically electronic.

  • The buyer can’t meet in person because of a number of reasons (i.e., they are a soldier in Iraq, they are a marine biologist, etc.).
  • The buyer requested you send the item to their “shipping agent.”
  • The buyer offered you more money than you were asking.
  • The buyer asked you to send money through Western Union or • MoneyGram to the “shipping agent.”
  • The buyer only sends you text messages and won’t speak to you on the phone.
  • If you received an email seemingly from PayPal that states you received money, look for these signs to see if the email is a fake:
  • The email does not address you by your first and last name
  • The email says the money is on “hold” until you complete an action (i.e. send money through Western Union, or click a link to submit a tracking number).
  • You can easily see if you received money by logging in to your PayPal account(do not click any links within the email). If you’ve been paid you’ll see the payment in your account.

CSO, a publication focused upon cybersecurity, published this anonymous interview with a Craigslist scammer. The scammer's comments offer insight into who makes a good mark. Hint: people who are in a hurry and don't ask questions often get taken for suckers.

Craigslist Wanted Volvo
Craigslist

The bottom line is that a little common sense goes a long way. Don't assume that a scammer will write in bad English or open with "Dear Sir." As was my experience, you might even receive a brief call, to trick you into thinking you're dealing with a legitimate buyer. Like viruses, scammers mutate and adapt over time.

When you're looking to sell old parts, just be patient and question everything you can't see in front of you. Don't fall into the trap of allowing your brain to operate on autopilot. You should approach every Craigslist transaction as a potential scam and limit your exposure by insisting upon in-person, cash-only transactions, or transactions through PayPal or Venmo, where you can see the money in your account once the payment has been made. If you're looking to ship something, it's best to use eBay, which protects both buyers and sellers from fraud, and has a standardized payment platform in place. If a Craigslist buyer talks you into shipping something, make sure you protect yourself by receiving payment—or a deposit, at least—before sending off the part.

Knowing this, it's easy to understand why Craigslist sellers can come off a bit brusque if you text or email them without explaining yourself. You'd be cagey, too, if you were getting scam texts every time you listed something. But don't let any of this scare you away from Craigslist. It's too convenient to give up on. Posting an ad is so easy. You snap a photo, write a few lines of description and voilà, your item is for sale. All you have to do is make certain the buyers want what you're selling, and not your financial information or identity.