Given everything from the "Craigslist killer" to Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal's campaign against the site to the escalating battle over prostitution ads, you'd have to live under a rock to miss Craigslist's sensational presence in the media. Lost in the discussions of illicit or criminal activity, though, are the everyday scams--and every category on the site has them.
From garden-variety pyramid schemes to complex money laundering ploys to pet frauds, the sheer diversity of ways to get stiffed on Craigslist is unmatched.
To be fair, the highly popular site offers very rational advice on how to recognize and avoid scams. But scammers persist in part because Craigslist is such a go-to place all over the world and partly because victims apparently don't heed the aforementioned advice.
One fellow even started a recreational blog called Exposing Scam Artists Who Use Craigslist, which is devoted to shining a light on the seedy underbelly of Craig Newmark's paradise. (Here's a 2004 interview with Craig. Note the last question and Craig's answer regarding his faith in mankind.)
Below we present a few of the scam classics. Make sure you don't become one of these poor schmucks.
Selling Something? Think Twice
When your significant other finally convinces (read: forces) you to get rid of that ejection-seat office chair you bought one drunken night on eBay, Craigslist is clearly the place to go. But one of the most common cons around is a dose of check fraud that might leave you reeling when you try to sell your unwanted item.
Here's how it works: The scammer contacts you and offers to buy your brown corduroy couch… oh, except they're out of town and will send you a check. When you "accidentally" receive a check for a much larger amount, they reasonably ask you to wire back the extra money--possibly even offering to pay a little extra for the inconvenience. But when the bank determines that the original check is a fake, guess who is responsible for the balance?
A variation of this scheme even briefly landed unsuspecting seller Matthew Shinnick in prison. When he tried to deposit just such a check (he thought he had sold two bikes to a buyer in Canada), the teller had a hunch that it was fraudulent and called the police. Shinnick wound up in an orange jumpsuit and had to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees before he could completely clear his name.
The lesson: Deal locally, never wire money to strangers, and stop buying ugly furniture.
Desperate for Work…
Employment scams on Craigslist are all kinds of questionable, but they also seem blatantly obvious. What is the likelihood that someone will pay you $900 per week to telecommute as a "documentation professional" with no experience necessary?
Yet, the jobs section is well known for tricking otherwise intelligent people into unfortunate situations. Two of the most common ploys are to ask for up-front training fees and to solicit personal information (often via a legitimate-looking Website) for "direct deposit" or "background check" purposes.
In a truly off-the-wall case, one guy hoodwinked 79 professionals into working for weeks on a sham project. Promising a $21,000 salary for two months worth of work, the charlatan set up a fake company, hired the group via e-mail, assigned seemingly real work, and tricked a lot of people into giving up their time and personal information. It seems the entire effort was undertaken in the hopes of getting a woman's attention.
The lesson: Posts that offer high income with little to no experience, telecommuting without meeting your boss, initial fees, and hiring without an interview are giant red flags that, in combination, should send you running.
Free Stuff (!?!)
Despite thousands of legitimate postings for free stuff on Craigslist, there have also been two recorded instances of crowds ransacking all of a person's worldly belongings. Why? Somebody posted an ad to the "Free" section claiming that the goods were there for the taking.
In 2007, the angry daughter of an evicted tenant carried out this particularly nasty revenge. An even more bizarre incident occurred a year later in rural Oregon. A woman unknown to the victim, Robert Salisbury, robbed him of a few saddles and then panicked. In a (profoundly stupid) attempt to cover her tracks, the thief posted a message declaring all possessions at Salisbury's address were up for grabs. Even his horse.
Anyone found in possession of stolen items is subject to criminal prosecution--as were the perpetrators of both hoaxes, who were caught and charged with a medley of crimes that included burglary, criminal impersonation, and malicious mischief.
The lesson: Just because it says so on Craigslist, it doesn't mean you can rob people. Be wary of catch-all posts that seem too good to be true. Also, don't piss anyone off who knows your address.
Surely the furry and cuddly section of Craigslist is free of worldly evils? Guess again.
Last year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an official warning about a swindle that one site has informally dubbed the Cameroon Pet Scam, explaining, "Typically, the person offering the animal for adoption lives in another country and claims to be looking for a good home for the animal. Victims pay shipping fees up front but never receive the animal."
Another con involves supposedly "rescuing" dogs or cats, often from an animal shelter, and then selling them for a profit on the site. According to one account, a family put their dog up for a free adoption directly via Craigslist. The very next day, they got a call from a woman who had purchased the dog for a $100 fee (also via the site) but then tracked down the original owners after noticing discrepancies on the veterinary papers.
The lesson: Craigslist is not the ASPCA. Make sure to get paperwork and documentation. Or just go to the ASPCA.
The crimes we've mentioned are hardly limited to Craigslist alone, but the epicenter of the world's online classified ads also has the following security ethos: "Simplicity and shame work best." According to Newmark, the most effective tools are warnings and flagging posts for removal. And scammers know it.
After witnessing a group of strangers trucking away his personal belongings, beleaguered homeowner Salisbury commented, "They honestly thought that because it appeared on the Internet it was true. It boggles the mind."