When James Beck’s teenage son wanted to sell his outgrown dirt bike in 2017, he turned to Craigslist. One evening in February, father and son loaded the bike into their pickup truck and set off to meet a potential buyer in Tampa, Fla., about an hour from their home. They were met by two teens, and police say the Becks quickly realized these “buyers” planned to rob them. Police say one of the teens shot and killed Beck in front of his son, while the others rode off on the bike.
It’s not the first or last time someone has been the victim of a violent crime after using Craigslist. And, while violent Craigslist crimes are rare, other types of scams are more common. These include scams designed to take your money, gain access to your personal information, or get something from you without paying for it.
Most people who use Craigslist never have any problems. But it’s smart to know how to spot a scam, and to be careful when meeting people in person. Here are some ways to protect yourself.
1. Use cash.
While paying in cash may seem sort of old-fashioned, it’s far safer than other payment options. If you’re a seller, examine the money your buyer gives you and know how to spot a counterfeit bill.
Whether you’re buying or selling, be prepared for the person on the other end of your transaction to suggest a different payment option. There are many of them, including money orders, cashier’s checks, personal checks, depositing money with an escrow service, PayPal, Venmo, and wire transfers directly to or from your bank account.
None of these is a better option than plain old cash. Money orders and cashier’s checks can be faked, personal checks can bounce, most escrow services are fake, PayPal is secure but scammers have ways around that, Venmo is only for sending money to people you know, and wire transfers give scammers access to your bank account information.
2. Only deal with local people, in person.
Craigslist is meant for buying and selling locally. But you’ll still see listings from far-flung places. Or, potential buyers will contact you from other states or countries.
There are several problems with out-of-towners. You can’t meet them in person. There’s no way to inspect an item before buying, meaning you might not get what you paid for. And you can’t close the deal in cash. You’ll have to use one of the less secure payment methods, and you’re much more likely to get scammed. Be especially wary of anyone who wants to do business through an agent—this usually indicates a scam.
3. Meet your buyer or seller in a secure location.
Play it safe when meeting with a buyer or seller. If possible, meet during daylight hours at a place where there are other people around—outside a busy fast-food restaurant, for instance. If you must meet at your home or the seller’s home, arrange to have someone with you. Make sure a friend or relative knows when and where your meeting is happening, and check-in with them afterward.
4. Sellers: Don’t let a buyer overpay and don’t agree to unusual payment scenarios.
Some of the most common payment scams involve a buyer who pays you more than your asking price and then asks you to refund the overpayment, minus a nice little bonus for yourself. So, if you’ve priced a computer at $1,000, the buyer will offer $2,000. The buyer will ask you to send back $800 via wire transfer and keep the extra $200.
The exact request can take many forms. It might involve agents and escrow companies. It might involve refunds of shipping costs. The important thing to know is that if you are asked to accept an overpayment and refund part of the money, it is a scam. The original payment is almost certainly fraudulent, and the payment back to the seller is a way to get your bank account and other personal information and set you up for additional fraud or possible identity theft. If you fall victim to one of these types of scams, it’s a good idea to talk to an attorney.
5. Buyers: If it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably a scam.
Everybody wants to find a good deal on Craigslist. And there are certain sellers who have to unload something at a rock-bottom price. But there also are scam artists who advertise a price far below what you know an item should sell for.
If the listing is legit, you’ll be able to meet the seller, look at the item, and buy it with cash. Signs of a scam include an out-of-town seller, a seller who offers excuses about why you can’t look at the item, a seller who wants to hold your payment in escrow, a seller who is working through an agent, or a seller who wants you to wire money and have the item shipped.
6. Sellers: Watch out for eager beavers.
If you were buying an expensive item like a used car, what would you do? You’d want to see it, kick the tires, drive it around the block, and talk the seller into letting it go for a lower price. So, if you are contacted by a buyer who can’t wait to pay you full price, sight unseen, your radar should be up.
Perhaps the buyer is really desperate or has been looking for this exact item for months. But be prepared to walk away if the buyer does something squirrelly, like giving you a long sob story or asking to pay you by wire transfer or ship the item halfway across the country.
7. Don’t disclose your personal email or other personal information.
Craigslist uses two-way anonymous emails. When you write to a person who has posted an ad, you won’t see the poster’s actual email address, and the poster won’t see yours either. This helps prevent email scams, but it doesn’t prevent a person who placed an ad from knowing who you are.
While Craigslist substitutes your email address, it still fills in your “real name” as it’s listed with your email provider. For added protection, you can set up a new email account not linked to your real name, and use this account when doing business on Craigslist. In addition, never give your real email address to anyone on Craigslist—it can set you up for future scams.
Many Craigslist scams are easy to spot. By keeping your eyes open and taking reasonable precautions, you can be among the millions of people who have successfully bought and sold there and who will continue to do so without
This feature was submitted by Erika Rykun
Erika is an independent copywriter and content creator. She is an avid reader who appreciates unread books more than read ones. You can get in touch with her on Twitter.