How to Spot Fraud And Other Craigslist Scams

By Sarah Li Cain | | Safety
How to Spot Fraud And Other Craigslist Scams
Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock

Most people who go on Craigslist know that there are those who aren’t exactly honest (a/k/a they’ll try to con you out of money or something just as nefarious). Perhaps you’ve read accounts of people who have fallen prey to fraud and are weary of even using the platform. Sure, there are still common types of Craigslist fraud where you’re asked to conduct a wire transfer, but Craigslist still has its advantages.

For one, it can still be a place where you can find some great bargains—as a quick example, I gave away truckloads of free gravel when we were doing work on our house. However, as with most things on the internet, you need to be cautious before proceeding with any transaction.

What is Craigslist fraud?

In a nutshell, Craigslist fraud are transactions involving fake (or stolen) goods, fraudulent money services or suspicious meetups. Most times, the victim might not even be aware it’s happening because the fraudulent listings are hard to spot.

For example, Daisi Jo Pollard Sepulveda, a model-turned-consultant to aspiring models, said that she frequently warns her clients about Craigslist.

“There are plenty of listings for fake modeling jobs with people doing who knows what,” she said. “There are also a lot of fake studio rental inquiries for studio owners and photographers.”

Given how Craigslist works, fraudulent postings aren’t always easy to detect. Think about it: you’re not only conducting transactions online. Instead, there’s a reliance on face-to-face transactions.

According to a report conducted by researchers at New York University, only 1.5% of all posts were fraudulent on Craigslist. It also appears as though some locales have more problems than others—San Francisco’s Craigslist rental section in particular missed about 47% of them.

Still, if you fall for one fraudulent listing you might get caught without your cash (or worse). Even if it’s become harder to identify Craigslist fraudsters, there are ways to spot them. You just need to be more cautious and consider the situation you might get into.

Common Craigslist frauds and scams

Before searching the listings on Craigslist, look at this list of common scams to help you be more vigilant.

Fake Job Ads

While most job ads will outline a list of criteria the applicant needs to have, requiring a fee of the applicant is rare. Fake ads can differ in terms of what it’ll ask.

Sepulveda said that fraudsters prey on new models because they’re hoping the models are ignorant in terms of how they would get hired and paid for a job.

“Scammers create an elaborate casting notice and when [the model] emails them, they’ll get a very detailed email back that they’re selected and what the terms will be,” she said. “The model then needs to provide a deposit before the job which happens to be at a fake address.”

Stolen or counterfeit goods

Maybe your transaction went well and you’re excited about your purchase. The fraudster didn’t ask for payment beforehand and was ok with getting cash. You find out later the item you purchased is counterfeit or stolen. While this can happen to larger ticket items, fraud involving smaller items like bikes and handbags are also common.

Ads from people who aren’t local

Yes, there are people who create posts and don’t live anywhere close to you. The poster could pretend to be a soldier who “lives” in your area but is on duty in another country. Or they may claim to be a relative of someone living in the area.

Considering Craigslist is meant for people to conduct local transactions, finding an ad that isn’t should raise red flags. That’s because the posters will want you to pay them electronically and you may not get what you were promised.

Cancelled or fake tickets

Similar to counterfeit or fake goods, cancelled or fake tickets are one of the more common Craigslist frauds on the platform. Fraudsters prey on people desperate to get tickets to popular events—think football games or concerts—and charge a steep markup on the cheapest ones they can find.

You’ll pay for these tickets, then the scammer cancels them—you’ll find out when you try to get into the venue. Or some are clever enough to create fake tickets that look legitimate, even replicating holograms or watermarks. If the prices seem too good to be true, it’s because they are.

Offers for purchase protection

Maybe you recently conducted a transaction or responded to an ad. You could find an email that appears to be from Craigslist that looks perfectly legitimate. This email will have language offering you a purchase protection plan. If you buy into it, you’ll supposedly have your recent purchase verified or protected.

Craigslist doesn’t offer such a service, so be wary of any emails (even texts) that make these claims.

Fraudulent checks or money orders

Some who want to pay with a check or money orders could be scammers—these items can be forged and you’ll find out a little too late. There are also those who want to pay by wire transfer which in most cases aren’t legitimate.

Just like fake tickets, thieves have gotten much smarter at creating false documents claiming they sent money orders or wire transfers. Holding a fake check or money order might not be as obvious to you because these documents look like ones from legitimate banks and other financial institutions.

In many cases, these types of payments are part of a Nigerian 419 scam, where thieves might even try to convince you to send your goods before payment arrives.

Paypal is also another common fake payment method. The payment processor itself warns those who want to use Craigslist for transactions—you could receive a fake Paypal email that “confirms” payment or you won’t receive payment at all. Even Craigslist warns users not to give out financial information in case it’s fraud.

Fake Escrow Websites

Escrow is a service where a company holds onto money (typically for a large sum) for two parties involved in a transaction until it’s been completed. It can be useful when used for transactions like a home or auto purchase. It’s also a method for thieves to get you to part with your money.

You’ll be asked to deposit money into an escrow service only to find out later that your money’s gone and the item you purchased is nowhere to be found.

Rental frauds on Craigslist

There are plenty of fake listings for short-term stays (like Airbnb) only to find out your deposit is gone and your lodging doesn’t exist. There are also others where people will show you a legitimate looking apartment you want to rent and get you to part with a deposit or an application fee. Then, the thief disappears.

In fact, fraud in New York City’s ads have become so rampant that Craigslist has started charging a small fee to post ads. Posters need to pay with a credit card, which can be one way to identify someone in case it is a fraudulent posting.

Fake Website

Sometimes you’ll arrive at a fake Craigslist website. How it works is that thieves will create websites using similar URLs and hope you make a mistake typing in the website address. In many cases you’ll be subjected to a barrage of ads but there are others who are out to collect your personal information.

How to try to spot Craigslist fraud

Spotting a Craigslist fraud can be as simple as noticing the red flags mentioned above. In addition, Craigslist also offers a few suggestions to be wary of before and after responding to an ad:

  • The ad might have a lot of grammatical and spelling errors, or composed in another language then translated into English.
  • The initial inquiry for your ad is very vague.
  • Correspondence referencing cashier’s checks, money orders, Paypal, escrow or other types of money transfer services.
  • Emails about verifying your purchase.
  • Seller or buyer refuses to meet you in person to complete the transaction.

Craigslist also has examples of emails from fraudulent sources so you can get an idea of what they look like.

If you’re ever unsure of any communication, it’s better to err on the side of caution and not proceed. You can consider conducting an online search or using a people search service that may help you learn more about a lister’s identity.

What to do if you’ve been scammed

The unfortunate news is that Craigslist doesn’t help you report fraud if you’ve already been scammed. However, you can help Craigslist with fraud by reporting suspicious activity by clicking on the flag icon at the top of the listing. That way, the Craigslist team will take a look—if more users flag the same post, it could get removed.

You can also contact Craigslist directly, especially if you feel the listing seems directly related to common types of fraud. The website can take a closer look and take action if the listing turns out to be fraudulent.

Otherwise, you can file a report with local police to try and recoup your losses. If you’re an armed service member or the family member of one, you can contact the Consumer Sentinel Network. In addition, here are a few places you can report fraud:

If it seems too good to be true…

Craigslist can be a great way to find bargains, one-off gigs and other treasures. However, it’s also a place rampant with fraud. The key is to be aware of the common types of scams like fake tickets, fraudulent escrow services and listings from people not in the area. Remain vigilant and safeguard your precious dollars and merchandise. Like the saying goes, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.