Scams even smart buyers and sellers fall for

I’m one of more than 50 million US users of Craigslist, the top source of free classified ads on the Internet. Since the online marketplace started up in the 1990s, I have used it to buy and sell all sorts of merchandise — ranging from computers to cars. I’ve used it so much that I’ve written a book about it.

Here are common mistakes on Craigslist and how to get the very best deals…


People who post merchandise for sale on Craigslist may get more fraudulent responses than genuine ones. Often they contain Web links. If you click on such a link, your computer may become infected with a virus, or a “cyber-robot” may harvest your e-mail address. (The crooks then sell the addresses to spammers.) Sometimes the link comes only in a second follow-up message after you have responded to an innocent-looking question, such as, “Is the item still available?” Never click on links in e-mail from people you do not know.

Other common scams for sellers to watch out for…

Buyers who pay more than the asking price. They will e-mail you a complicated story giving their reasons (they received a check from an estate, or they made a mistake and sent too much). They then ask you to refund the extra. You pay them online or send them a check for the difference between the amount they sent and the price of your item and then discover that their check has bounced.

Buyers who want you to send the item before they’ve paid for it. They come up with an excuse (a birthday, a vacation trip) so that you will deliver the item right away. Some buyers will claim that they have sent payment through an e-check that hasn’t cleared. They might even claim something as antiquated (but still in use) as Western Union or another similar service. Since it can take days for money to go through with these services, you may find out too late that payment was never sent. Accepting payment through PayPal usually is better.

Buyers who pay by certified or cashier’s check. These sound official, but can be faked. If you deposit a fraudulent check, you’ll take the loss. Again — stick with payment through PayPal.


If you are a buyer, be aware that the more expensive the item, the more prevalent the scams…

“Vehicle for sale” requires an especially suspicious eye. Craigslist says that offers to ship cars after purchase are 100% fraudulent.

How it works: You see a vehicle listed at a very low price. When you communicate with the seller, you learn that the car is overseas and must be shipped. You will receive a complicated message detailing a complicated method of payment (through an escrow service, Western Union, etc.). Don’t bite. Do stop all communication with the “seller.” If the listing is still online, flag it (all ads have a special area in the upper-right-hand corner to do this). If enough people flag a listing, Craigslist will pull it — and you will help prevent other people from being burned.

Stolen merchandise. Another reason that a price may seem too good to be true — the merchandise may be stolen. Before buying a computer, bicycle, jewelry or other valuable item, ask the seller to send you the original purchase receipt, owner’s manual, installation disk or other proof of ownership. Trust your instincts if the seller is vague about proof.

Fraudulent housing. Beware of listings for rentals or lease-to-own housing that require a deposit. Once you send the deposit (often by Western Union to an overseas address because the “home owner” had to leave the country unexpectedly), you are mailed the keys. When you go to the house, you find out that the keys don’t fit and the house is really for sale, not for rent — and your money has disappeared. The listing was probably cribbed from a house-for-sale posting.


You are more likely to sell an item for a higher price if you avoid common mistakes…

Creating vague headlines. Instead of browsing through local listings, many prospective buyers use the search feature on Craigslist or Google to find, say, a used cell phone with certain features. To help them pull up your listing, create a headline that is specific and succinct. Headlines can contain up to 70 characters. Use your allotment wisely. Always include important information such as size, brand/model and condition (for example, “New”). Avoid unnecessary words (“Look!”) and abbreviations that people may not know (“EUC” for “Excellent Used Condition”).

Real headlines that need help: “Brand-New Mattress” lacks manufacturer and size. “Simmons King-Size Beautyrest Mattress” lacks the item’s condition.

Not including photos. Many people won’t click on a listing unless search results show that it includes photos. (You can post up to four.) But don’t rely solely on photos to communicate what your merchandise looks like. Colors may not show up well on buyers’ computers. Patterns may not be clear. Make sure that descriptions are clear and complete.

Bad ad I recently found: The headline reads, “Large Chinese Vase.” No photos are included. The description says, “Large, very pretty ornamental hand-painted authentic Chinese vase/planter — acquired it many years ago — not our taste — maybe it is yours.”

What is the size of the vase? The color? Pattern? Shape? Condition? Age? Questions can be e-mailed to sellers, but many folks won’t take the time.

Not protecting your privacy. When you create a listing, you can have your e-mail address automatically “anonymized” — Craigslist will assign the listing a made-up e-mail address so that your real one is not seen by people who send you an e-mail response. But if you answer the e-mail, your e-mail address is no longer anonymized, and the person who received the response may use it to send you junk messages. Solution: Set up a free e-mail account to use only with your Craigslist postings. Use Yahoo (, Gmail ( or another free service.

I often include my phone number in my listings so that prospective buyers can call me. If you don’t want to give out your number, consider signing up for Google Voice ( The service assigns you a free phone number that bounces incoming calls to a number you already have.

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