When you’ve got something to buy or sell, Craigslist can be your best friend. Its audience is huge, you’ll find local listings just about everywhere, and it doesn’t cost to put up a listing of your own. Of course, there are downsides as well: The interface is decidedly clunky and old-school, many users are militant about only offering a rock-bottom price, and — of course — the site has a pretty robust population of scammers.
Most of the scams on Craigslist are variations on a relatively modest number of themes. We’ve compiled a list of five common scams that represent most of those, to illustrate the basic rules for spotting Craigslist scams. Once you know what to look for, those tell-tale red flags will be obvious every time.
1. Rental Property Scams
People will always need a roof over their heads, which makes housing scams an “evergreen” opportunity for criminals. There are several variations on these scams, targeting both renters and landlords.
Scams aimed at renters will typically be priced below current market value for a given area, and the photos will make it look really good. Of course there’s a lot of interest, so the scammer needs a deposit. Or first and last month’s rent, or first month’s rent and security deposit, depending on what’s normal in your market. If the scammer is interested in identity theft, you may be asked to fill out a detailed application or credit check, which gives them your personal information.
- A push to commit immediately
- Usually (not always) you can’t see the unit
- Payment is through wire transfer, Venmo or similar service
- Photos look suspiciously professional (or alternatively, there may be no photos at all)
- The application process — unless identity theft is the goal — is minimal or non-existent
- The owner is “out of town,” so the scammer claims to be acting on their behalf
Scams aimed at landlords typically take a different tack. The putative renter will often “mistakenly” overpay the rent or deposit using a cashier’s check, and ask for the difference to be sent back. Then the check bounces, leaving the landlord on the hook for the money. Some scammers actually do rent the place using fake ID and a counterfeit cashier’s check, and then fraudulently rent it out to multiple applicants (taking the money in advance, of course).
- Renter overpays using a cashier’s check, and needs a “refund.” This is always a scam.
- Renter can’t meet in person, on one or another excuse
2. Car Buying Scams
Cars are one of the biggest-ticket items most people own, so buyers and sellers are often victimized by scammers looking to make a score. If you’re a buyer, the ads will usually feature both a really good deal — below market price — and a convenient explanation for selling: being deployed overseas; recently divorced or widowed; moving out of the area, or some variation on that theme. There may be no photos at all, or strangely professional-looking photos. Whatever the setup, there will always be a request to pay sight unseen, and usually through a payment app or wire transfer. Once sent, of course, the money is gone.
If you’re a seller, the focus changes slightly. Your supposed buyer has some specific reason for not meeting in person, but will happily send you a cashier’s check for the cost of the vehicle and send someone to pick it up. If you agree, you lose the vehicle, and then the money once the check is returned by your bank.
- Pressure to act quickly
- Unwillingness to meet in person (often explained as being away from the area temporarily)
- Unwillingness to provide a phone number or other means of contact
- Wanting to pay by cashier’s check
3. Escrow, “Certified Seller” and “Financial Middleman” Scams
One type of Craigslist scam deliberately targets users’ fear of falling victim to scams on cars, real estate and other big-ticket items. When homes and other big-ticket items are sold, the money is usually paid into an escrow account, where a third party (a bank, law firm or other institution) holds the money until the deal is finalized. Scammers leverage your familiarity with this legitimate business tool to part you with your money.
They’ll try to get around your perfectly justified reluctance to send money sight unseen by suggesting the use of an online escrow service. They’ll even helpfully send you the link! Unfortunately, the service is bogus, your money is gone, and — if you’re really unfortunate — the faked escrow website also contained malicious software that stole your personally identifiable information.
Variations on the scheme may attempt to persuade you that the other party is “Craigslist certified” and therefore trustworthy, or that Craigslist itself or a third-party intermediary guarantees the transaction (spoiler: Craigslist does neither of these things).
- This whole arrangement is fraudulent, so just walk away as soon as they bring it up
4. Job Offers and Work-from-Home Opportunity Scams
Since the crash of 2008–2009, increasing numbers of people have turned to gig work and “side hustles” to make ends meet, and scammers were quick to take advantage. Both the desperation to find work, and the number of scammers purporting to offer it, rose sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic as well.
There are lots of fake job scams out there. In one, your “job” is unboxing merchandise, repackaging it, and shipping it out. The merchandise is stolen or purchased fraudulently, and the paycheck never comes. Another scam offers “wholesale” merchandise to you that you then resell at a markup, but the merchandise never arrives and your money is gone. Variations on that theme are bogus network marketing schemes, or fake signups to a real network marketing company, which take you for the cost of your “startup kit.”
Bogus job placement firms and mystery shopper contractors ask for fees to set you up with work, or ask you to pay for bogus certifications (legitimate companies don’t charge you, they charge the employer). Others have an “onboarding process” that involves you sending them all of your personal and banking information for payroll purposes, which is outright identity theft. Some scammers will send you money, which you’ll redistribute to various destinations under one or another pretext: You’re hired as a “personal assistant,” perhaps, or your supposed job actually is to transfer money between accounts. The job is bogus, the money comes from criminal activity, and you may be liable for dollar amounts (or worse, potentially subject to prosecution).
- You’re expected to pay money to your supposed employer
- Your duties are a weird non-job
- You’re temporarily out of pocket for one reason or another, “until payday”
- Your purported employer has no web presence, or the company is legitimate but the email address you’re corresponding with is bogus
5. Bogus Tickets and Other Fraudulent (or Non-Existent) Merchandise Scams
Another evergreen scam, which lurks anywhere things are bought and sold, is the selling of fraudulent or non-existent merchandise. Tickets are a popular choice, because there’s a built-in sense of urgency (“the game/concert is tonight!”) that can help push victims to plunk down their money. They’re also much easier to fake than, say, a piece of Louis Vuitton or Gucci merchandise, because they’re just printed paper. The scammers may even claim to be mainstream vendors like Ticketmaster (they’re not). By the time you find out that the ticket is bogus, your money is long gone and so is the scammer.
There are plenty of other scams, of course. Shrink-wrapping machines and bags are relatively cheap, so that “never has been opened” phone might simply be a flat rock inside a re-sealed box. The “lightly used, perfect condition” appliance or electronic item might be non- or barely functional, or have been recalled by the manufacturer, or…may not exist at all. If you’ve paid by Venmo, or wire transfer, or gift card, your money’s gone whether or not the product is functional, as-advertised or even real.
- No photos, or photos that are suspiciously “too good”
- Ticket resellers who claim to be major vendors
- Payment requested by wire transfer, gift card or non-cancellable, non-traceable methods
- Payment requested before you actually get your hands on the product
Protecting Yourself from Craigslist Scams
So how can you avoid Craigslist scams? Your first step should always be self-education. Craigslist’s own “Avoiding Scams” page is a good starting point (if Craigslist says something is always a scam, believe them). The Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker is another good source; just type “Craigslist” into the Keyword box and settle in for several hours of educational (and hair-raising) reading. Common sense plays a key role as well: If an offer seems too good to be true, or just feels wrong, walking away is never a bad option.
If a given Craigslist listing displays a few of the “tells” (i.e., red flags) listed above, it’s time for a little more scrutiny. Some examples that can help you thwart specific scams include the following:
- Checking photos in Google’s reverse image search before committing to a rental, or purchasing a car or anything else based on pictures. If they were copied from somewhere else, or if they show up in dozens of listings, then it’s a scam.
- Asking for pictures if there are none in the original listing (a selfie with the image, or a pic with today’s newspaper in it, is the most reliable). Also, they should upload the photos to the original listing and not send them to you directly: Hiding malware in a downloadable attachment is a common scammer’s ploy.
- Make it an ironclad rule to meet in person. A seller or buyer who won’t meet is probably up to no good, no matter how plausible the excuse.
- If the buyer insists on using a cashier’s check, tell them, “Sure…just tell me where your bank is, and we’ll go together to get it issued.” If they’re scammers, that will put a halt to the business in a hurry.
- Research the company that makes you a job offer. If the website looks amateurish or slapped together, look up its ownership online. If the company is legit but the email address (or the offer itself) seems odd, reach out to the company directly. Many real companies, especially work-from-home companies, are commonly used as “cover” by scammers.
- Always get a name and phone number from your potential buyer or seller, and run them through Spokeo’s people search tools. If your search results don’t jibe with what they’re telling you, walk away.
- Google the details of the listing, or the job offer. If it’s a common scam, you’ll see a lot of results telling you so.
- If you routinely make big-ticket purchases, research a reliable, legitimate escrow company and use it for all of your purchases. If your seller (or buyer) isn’t willing to use your escrow provider, just walk away.
The Bottom Line on Craigslist Scams
Whether you’re selling as a “side hustle,” buying on a budget or just looking to de-clutter, Craigslist is a superbly useful tool (that is, after all, how it got to be so big). While the site doesn’t lack for scammers, most of the people who buy and sell on Craigslist are ordinary people just like you.
As long as you’re sensible about your interactions on the site, and exercise a degree of healthy skepticism about any offers that sound too good to be true, you should be able to rely on Craigslist to deliver a happy and trouble-free experience.
- Franklin County, OH Self-Help Resource Center: How to Spot Craigslist Housing Scams
- Vox: Why Cashier’s Checks Are Part of So Many Online Scams
- Better Business Bureau: Virtual Vehicle Vendor Scams: BBB Study Reveals a Growing Scam Using Fake Cars and Escrow Companies to Steal from Unwilling Customers
- US Federal Trade Commission: Job Scams
- Ticketmaster: How to Avoid Ticket Scams on Craigslist & Buying Fake Tickets
- Craigslist: Avoiding Scams
- Better Business Bureau: Scam Tracker
- Google Support: Search With an Image on Google
- Wearable Technologies: JobsInternet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN): Domain Name Registration Data Lookup