Nick Wilson’s dog was sick.
The Raleigh, North Carolina, man had recently adopted a rescue puppy, Wallie, who needed an emergency operation. Looking for quick cash to finance the procedure, Wilson placed his iPhone for sale on Craigslist. His asking price, according to the local ABC affiliate: $900.
A woman responded, and the two planned to meet at Crabtree Valley Mall. Wilson, an experienced Craigslist user, preferred to meet inside the public building. The buyer explained that she had a baby; it would be easier for her to meet in the parking lot. Wilson agreed.
Sure enough, on the day of the meeting, the woman had a toddler in her passenger seat. The transaction went off without a hitch—at first. Wilson handed over the phone and the woman handed him a stack of bills. When Wilson started to count the money, though, he realized something was very wrong. The money was fake, not even convincingly counterfeit. It felt like standard computer paper, Wilson told ABC.
The scam took a terrifying turn when Wilson reached through the car window to take his phone back. The woman stepped on the gas, dragging the shocked seller down the street. Thankfully, Wilson got free before he suffered serious injury, but the violence put a dark punctuation mark on a disturbing encounter that began, as so many do, online.
Wallie got his operation, but Wilson is still struggling to pay the vet bills—he has a GoFundMe page here. But this is the (at least) $900 question: What can you do to avoid Wilson’s fate? What other types of scams are lurking out there in the wide, wild marketplace of Craigslist?
Craigslist has thousands of posts and brings in over 800 million views per month, according to traffic tracker SimilarWeb. With those numbers, you’re bound to come across the occasional nefarious user. Safety matters when you’re Craigslist hunting; there might be people out there looking to scam you, and it’s not always easy to catch them after they strike.
That said, if you educate yourself and stay vigilant, you can avoid becoming a victim and buy on with confidence. Here are some of the most frequently attempted scams you might encounter—and what to do if you find yourself in Wilson’s asphalt-mangled shoes.
1. Check the Checks
This scam involves a very motivated buyer and a fake check. Lucas Horton, of Valeria Fine Jewelry, found out about this con the hard way. Horton, who is based out of Dallas, has been selling jewelry since 2008 and has successfully eluded online scammers…
I realized I had been scammed as soon as I opened the check…
Except for the time a potential customer contacted Horton saying he was coming to Dallas to look at a particular ring.
“He was very inquisitive and knowledgeable about diamonds and seemed like a legit buyer, unlike most scammers,” Horton tells Urbo. “A day later, he said he couldn’t make it to Dallas and asked if we could do FedEx Collect On Delivery (COD).”
Horton mailed the ring overnight to the customer, and the delivery driver picked up a check upon delivery. However, when the check got to Horton, there was a big problem.
“I realized I had been scammed as soon as I opened the check, as it was ridiculously fake,” says Horton. “I contacted FedEx, and they said it says in the fine print of the COD service that drivers don’t verify anything, and as long as the piece of paper says cashier’s check, they will accept it.”
FedEx does allow COD shippers to file claims in situations like Horton’s, and the company says its claims resolution process is fairly quick. They resolve most claims within seven to 10 days of receiving the paperwork. However, in some cases, the company has to do deeper research, leading to a longer resolution gap. Even in the best-case scenario, in which FedEx compensates you for the loss, who needs that hassle?
Surrounding PD's continue to take reports of counterfeit bills, check fraud, and robbery. Associated with craigslist sales.
— Lafayette Police -CA (@LafayettePD) July 12, 2011
This sort of scam is nothing new. It’s a species of check fraud, which con artists have been using since the dawn of banking. Check scams landed at No. 2 on the Council of Better Business Bureau’s 2017 Scam Tracker Annual Risk Report.
The Federal Trade Commission warns against one type of old-fashioned check scam in which a stranger asks you to deposit a check, withdraw funds when they become available, and mail the cash to them. Most banks make funds available before verifying the validity of the deposited check, so when they figure out the deposit was fake, you’ll end up on the hook for the funds.
All of this to say: Think twice before accepting checks as payment for a Craigslist sale.
2. The Unbelievable, Un-tourable House
Emilio DeSpirito is a Rhode Island realtor who checks out Craigslist on occasion. A few years back, he was shocked to see one of his company’s properties listed for rent on the website. The problem? DeSpirito’s company was not behind the ad. The house wasn’t even for rent—it was for sale.
DeSpirito told the local NBC affiliate about what he said is a widespread scam. The “rental company” asked hopeful renters to send first and last month’s rent through the mail in order to secure the property. They’ll send the key, they say. Of course, once the scammers get the money, the victim never hears from them again.
One woman called DeSpirito after having been scammed with scraped pictures of one of the realtor’s companies.
“She contacted me crying, telling me she lost her savings, and it was about $3,000,” DeSpirito told NBC.
This type of crime can get pretty ornate, as evidenced by a string of similar Craigslist scams chronicled by fraud-tracking website The Daily Scam.
In five separate cases—four in Vermont and one in Illinois—renters posted promising but vague ads on Craigslist. Plenty of red flags mark potential tenants’ (or The Daily Scam’s sleuths’) interactions with the posters: Despite requests, the posters refused to speak on the phone, instead opting for text or email; their descriptions of the properties seemed too good to be true, with appliances provided and utilities included in the rent; they refused to tour the property with the potential tenants; perhaps most alarmingly, they asked the potential tenants to wire them money without ever walking through the place or meeting in person.
Someone took the picture of our house and is pretending to be us renting it out on Craigslist to scam people.
— kaitlyn (@KaitlynZink) February 17, 2016
If you’re ever asked to wire or transfer money without ever meeting someone or walking through the space, STOP. Once wired money is picked up, there is no way to issue a refund. Your cash is gone. You should never agree to wire money to someone you don’t know, wrote Dan Manolescu, a former data protection and privacy specialist for the European Commission, in his blog.
3. The Unbelievable, Un-Tourable Car
Craigslist is a great site to find an affordable vehicle. Sometimes, though, the vehicle doesn’t actually exist.
Jenny, whose name has been changed for this story, was trying to find a car fast, so she turned to Craigslist. Most cities have a decent amount of local vehicle listings with reasonable prices, so it makes sense to shop online instead of going to a dealership. Jenny found out why brick-and-mortar car dealers might still be the way to go.
“I found this Honda with low miles for a great price and reached out to the seller,” Jenny tells Urbo. But the response she got complicated things.
“The seller emailed me back saying she was a sergeant in the military and was selling the car because she was being transferred to another city out of state,” she says. “But even in her story, she never mentioned the city where the car was listed, and it seemed weird that someone would be selling a vehicle on Craigslist like that.”
Here is the seller’s email response:
The combination of over-explaining, offering a scratch-less vehicle, omitting the key detail of location, and eagerness to sell set off Jenny’s swindle detector.
She was probably right to walk away. Fraud Guides, another scam-hunting website, points out that scammers often claim to be in the military to explain why they’re unloading such a great car at such a low price. “I’m headed overseas,” they say. In Jenny’s case, the seller was headed to Alaska.
If you're going to scam someone on Craigslist, at least have the respect not to use that you're in the military.
— ✨Jess✨ (@jessiegibbs25) July 2, 2015
The lessons? Be wary of dealing with folks who claim to be out-of-state or overseas. Never pay for a vehicle unless you’ve physically sat behind the wheel.
Don’t let these scams scare you. There are plenty of legitimate deals available on Craigslist—you just have to pay attention to details and be smart about your interactions.
All of the scams listed so far have one major thing in common—the seller was never available to meet in person. If a seller is always giving you excuses, refusing to meet up with you, or trying to get a third-party person involved, they might be trying to hoodwink you.
4. Will the real Craigslist seller please stand up?
Even if someone is down to meet you in person, there’s still a chance that things can go wrong—remember the sad story of Wilson and his sick puppy.
Anyone who has malicious behavior in mind is not likely to meet you at a police station.
It’s important to pick meeting spots that are in public and well-lit. Also, never go alone to a transaction—especially if large sums of cash are involved. If you can’t convince a friend to come along, be sure you always let someone know where you’re going and what you’re doing when meeting up.
To make sure buyers and sellers are able to stay safe and avoid any scam artists, some police departments have opted into the SafeTrade program. Through SafeTrade, people can use local police departments as meeting spots for transactions that originated online.
“[In-person transactions provide] an opportunity for people who want to misbehave to misbehave. The smart thing to do is go where you’re going to be observed by law enforcement. That’s at a police station and sheriff’s office,” says Peter Zollman, a spokesman for SafeTrade. “Anyone who has malicious behavior in mind is not likely to meet you at a police station.”
If an online buyer or seller doesn’t like the idea of a meeting in full view of the cops, there’s a good chance they might have nefarious plans.
“On the other hand, if you say, ‘Meet at police station for both of our safety,’ [and they agree,] that’s a pretty good indication that it’s someone just as concerned about safety as you are,” says Zollman.
And remember, if you get a bad feeling in your gut, listen to it. Your instincts might be your best guide through the labyrinth of Craigslist.