Craigslist phishing

I got this lovely message just the other day:

Subject: Confirmation for Posting ID #981651681

Confirmation for Posting ID #981651681

Your ad, titled “SONY PLAYSTATION 3 METAL GEAR SOLID 4 PS3 80GB BUNDLE!”, has been posted as follows: (electronics)

Posts will appear in the list of postings and in search results in about 15 minutes. If you are trouble finding them,
please check our help page at

Please login into your account if you need to edit of delete your posting:

If you did not post this ad please change your account password asap:

For your protection please check our list of common scams: htttp://

Thanks for using craigslist!

The only problem is, all the links are disguised; they actually lead to a site hosted at I guess you’re supposed to go, “Whoa! I’m not selling a Playstation! I gotta fix this now!” and start clicking.

Here’s the thing I don’t get: why are they trying to steal Craigslist passwords? To my knowledge, Craigslist isn’t like eBay where you pay through the site itself; don’t Craigslist buyers just contact the seller and arrange for payments on their own? Is it that difficult to just create a fake Craigslist account from which to run your cashier’s check and wire transfer scams?

I just don’t get it. Somebody fill me in if I’m wrong about this; I don’t use online classifieds at all, so I don’t know firsthand how it works.

How NOT to rent a home

Let’s say you’ve just got an excess of money in your life, and you’re tired of it. To remedy the situation, you decide to lose eleven or twelve hundred dollars to a con artist.

Now, how should you go about it? Eureka! To Craigslist!

Start looking up rental properties on Craigslist and find a few you like. Start contacting property owners until one instructs you to drive by the house and check it out. The owner himself can’t be there to show you around the place because he’s on vacation overseas. However, if you like the look of the place, you can just send a check for the first month’s rent to his vacation address (or wire the money).

Follow his instructions to the letter, and hey presto! you’ve just lost several hundred bucks! The person on the phone never did own the house, and in fact has just lifted photos from a legitimate rental advertisement.

Naturally, nobody actually wants to lose money to a scam, so what I’m really saying here is don’t do any of the above.

Okay, fine, you can look for apartments or houses to rent on Craigslist. That, in and of itself, isn’t a mistake. However, if you find one you’re interested in, absolutely refuse to hand over money unless the property owner agrees to meet you there in person, has a key that opens the door, shows you the inside, and can prove that the property belongs to him or her. (You still might want to bring a friend with you, because there are other, non-financial risks associated with meeting a stranger.)

Also, never hand over money until contracts have been signed and everything is official and legal.

With the kind of scam described above, you have to consider three questions: first, why would you agree to rent a house or apartment, mostly sight-unseen (except for the outside)? What if you find out there’s no kitchen and the only toilet is right in the middle of the bedroom?

Second, why would they agree to rent a house to you, sight-unseen? There are people in the world who just wreck stuff. Any owner renting out a property is going to want to feel you out in person and make sure you at least don’t seem like the type that’s going to cut a hole in the living room wall with a chainsaw three days after you move in.

Third, if the house is locked up and the owner is supposedly on vacation overseas, how’s he s’posed to give you the key?

Overpayment Scams

Burn this into your memory:

“Cash this check, then wire money back to me” always equals scam.

I’ve said it a million times before when discussing secret shopper and lottery scams, but the actual context just does not matter. Anyone who gives you a check to cash so you can wire cash back to them is a con artist.

 It’s pretty easy to remember that when you’re looking at a letter from a Nigerian Prince, or an email that says you won the “Microsoft Lottery” or something, but there are versions of the overpayment scam that target businesses, too.

Let’s say you’ve got a property for rent. You get a call from someone who seems really interested in the space. They agree to send you a deposit to hold the property for them. You tell them it’s $800 (I’ve never been in this business, so I don’t know if that’s a realistic number or not).

A couple days later you get a cashier’s check for $3,000. You call the renter about the overpayment, who tells you to just wire the difference back to him. The check will turn out to be counterfeit.

And there it is; you are about to fall for the same old scam, just in a new context.

The same thing happens on Craigslist and online classified sites. You’re selling an item. Somebody contacts you with the intent to buy, so you agree on a price of $500. You get a check for $3,000, with instructions to wire the excess back. Exact same story.

Think about this: would you send a extra couple thousand dollars to an online seller, and trust this stranger to give you back your change? Online classifieds are risky enough without handing over four times the cost of the item you’re hoping to receive. My online classified rule is: whether buying or selling, if you can’t meet in person, you’re not interested. The short version (and homage to the Surf Punks) is: Locals Only!

There are versions of this scam that target business owners, too. The details just do not matter—those checks are always going to turn out to be counterfeit, and you’re always going to end up losing money.

Avoiding real estate and rental scams.

Rental and real estate scams seem to be on the increase lately. Maybe they’re just getting more attention, but if they’re anything like every other scam in the universe, they proliferate in a rough economy.

There are versions that target both owners and renters.

For example, if you’ve got a property to rent out, you might be contacted by a party who claims to be interested. They will either send you a cashier’s check (first and last month’s rent, deposit, etc.) for far over the amount you’ve asked, then ask you to wire the remaining funds back to them, or give you a check then pretend to back out of the agreement later.

In this case, remember first that anyone who gives you a check then tells you to wire some or all of it back to them is attempting to commit fraud. I have yet to come across an exception to this rule. Also, if you’re renting out a property, only deal with people you can meet in person, verify their identification, and do all the credit and other checks you’d ordinarily do.

If you’re attempting to rent a property, the scam usually involves people who claim to be landlords but aren’t. You have to verify that a property is in fact owned by the person you’re talking to. Just having the key doesn’t mean anything—sometimes this scheme is run by former tenants. Ask to see the landlord’s ID, and use local websites or other resources to verify that you’re dealing with the real owner.

As a final tip, just be beyond cautious if you’re using Craigslist for renting out a property or finding a place to rent.

The IC3 has some additional information, and this site goes into even greater detail. Whichever side of a rental situation you’re standing on, it pays to stay vigilant.

Classified Ad Scams: taking the AG’s advice to a logical extreme.

The Indiana Attorney General’s Office sent out a new message on Friday with some advice concerning criminals running scams on people who sell things in classified advertisements (I’m going to assume this happens mostly via Craigslist, although the alert didn’t mention the site specifically).

It is, as usual, fine advice, but I almost feel like their tips don’t go far enough. I’m not usually much of an extremist in most regards, but there comes a time when you need to go the extra mile to protect yourself, and selling things via online classifieds is one of those times.

So, here are the AG’s tips, along with the ways I would recommend taking them to a logical extreme:

  • When posting an ad, be leery of anyone offering to pay more for your item than the listed price. This is often the first sign of a fake check scam.

The FPU Says: Absolutely refuse to accept more than the asking price, and never under any circumstance agree to wire funds back to a buyer. On a related note, basically refuse to sell to anyone who isn’t local and willing to meet in person. Why would someone in Oregon choose to buy your cruddy old kitchen table in Indiana? Surely they could have found one closer to home.

  • Never accept or transfer money from a Cashiers Check or Money Order. Let the buyer know that you will be waiting for the bank to finalize the funds, which may take up to four weeks.

The FPU Says: Really, if you’re selling something for less than a few hundred dollars, refuse to accept any form of check. Cash only. You’re meeting the buying in person to show the item and make the sale anyway, right? In cases where the item is large enough to warrant a check, make sure to wait until your financial institution clears the check to release the merchandise. Actually, if you’re selling something that good, maybe you should consider other selling channels.

  • Investigate your buyer and talk by phone or meet in a public place to discuss important details of the transaction, such as payment and condition of the item.

The FPU Says: Yes. Local buyers only. Do your homework.

  • DO NOT ship or release interest in your merchandise until you are confident that the funds have cleared or you have the money in cash. 

The FPU Says: Just do not ship your merchandise in the first place. Shipping = trouble. Locals only!

  • Be cautious of offers to buy an item sight-unseen.

The FPU Says: Absolutely refuse to sell sight-unseen. Why would a buyer be willing to take on the risk of you running a scam? Only if they’ve got nothing to lose, I think.

The FPU Adds: Also, if you’re selling or buying an item with cash from a local person who you are going to meet in person, there is no reason to reveal any personal information to them, including your full name. Bringing a friend along is also highly recommended. You don’t want to get rolled.

Of course, you might read this and ask, “Don’t you lose the whole worldwide reach of online classifieds when you refuse to sell anywhere but locally?”

Maybe. You might as well just use the old newspaper classifieds, right?

Well, have you priced those lately? Online wins. Just be careful out there.

How to avoid Craigslist scams.

You’ve probably heard of Craigslist. Basically, it’s an online classified ad site where you can sell or buy items, find jobs, dates or local events.

It’s an interesting site, for a variety of reasons:

  1. The design of the site is super-minimalist. It’s changed very little since 1996, so it’s an example of pure function over flash (and Flash, for that matter).
  2. The company genuinely seems more interested in creating value than raking in supermassive profits, which it could do if it would just fill the site up with paid advertising and skeevy JavaScript (their profits are pretty massive anyway, though).
  3. It’s only source of revenue is paid job listings in certain cities

There are more, but “Why Craigslist Is Neat” is not the title of today’s post.

When you’re selling something on Craigslist, it’s very likely you’re going to get some messages from people attempting to scam you. So how do you avoid them?

First and foremost, deal only with local people you can meet in person, and accept only cash as payment. With this one step, you will reduce your chances of running into a scam to nearly nothing.

When you do meet your buyer in person, only do so in a public place (never at your home), make sure you tell your friends or family where you are going, bring a cell phone, consider bringing a friend, and listen to any nagging doubts you might have when you’re meeting the buyer. These tips are directly from Craigslist’s page on the topic of personal safety.

Never give any personal information to anyone during the course of a Craigslist transaction. You’re buying or selling an object with cash. Nobody needs anybody’s account numbers (or full name, in my opinion).

Generally, nobody from Craigslist is going to contact you about your listing, as the company is not involved in the transaction at all. There are no “guarantees,” and anyone who talks of these things is up to no good.

You might get people who agree to buy an item, then send you a cashier’s check for ten times the amount, with instructions to cash it and wire the excess back to them.

Sound familiar? It should—it’s a variation on the old secret shopper scam, this time in the form of an overpayment scam.

However, if you’re following the number one rule (cash only, local in-person sales only), you eliminate the possibility of this scam entirely.

Craigslist has a page dedicated to avoiding scams, which contains some examples of different scams, as well as the following:

Most scams involve one or more of the following:

  • inquiry from someone far away, often in another country
  • Western Union, Money Gram, cashier’s check, money order, shipping, escrow service, or a “guarantee”
  • inability or refusal to meet face-to-face before consummating transaction

Finally, make sure you’re actually on Craigslist. The real web address is Watch out for easy misspellings like “craiglist” or different domains (.com or .net).

It’s a great site if you use it wisely (and an interesting business model), but be aware of the dangers and stick to in-person sales using cash.

But seriously folks, what is the deal with wiring money?

Looking back over the different types of fraud and scams I’ve been covering these past few months (and the ones I’m going to cover soon), I can’t help but notice that an inordinate amount of them involve wiring money.

Mystery Shopper Scams: the victim wires money to the thief.

Grandparent Telephone Scam: the victim wires money to the thief.

Craigslist Overpayment Scam: the victim wires money to the thief.

Job Interview Scam: the victim wires money to the thief.

Lottery Scam: the victim wires money to the thief.

So this has me thinking…what is the deal with wiring money? There just seems to be an aroma of seediness around the whole industry.

I’m not trying to throw Western Union under the bus here. I know the vast majority of people are using it and similar services for legitimate reasons, but still. Why is it so easy to commit crimes using money-wiring services, and could providers do anything to make it less so?

In all honesty, probably not. The crook is the one committing a crime. The victim is just wiring money, which you can pretty much do at will. It’s not a crime to fall for a scam. Limiting users’ ability to wire funds would just create extra hassle for customers and drive down business.

So that means it’s on you to not become a victim in the first place. Be knowledgeable about different types of scams. Most of all, just think before you act.

For example, I can’t think of a single legitimate case in which someone would mail you a cashier’s check and ask you to cash it, then wire money back to them. If someone is telling you to do this, it is a scam. 100% of the time. Just take that as a general rule, and you’ll reduce your chances of becoming a victim.

Hit these links

Let’s take a break from the Identity Theft Myths series today, and instead look at some other topics from other places on the web.

“Is Facebook becoming Phishingbook?” explores a social media scam that seems to be growing lately. Summary: if you’re Facebook friend tells you they’ve been mugged in London and need you to wire money, don’t.

Excellent advice from Craigslist. There is a lot of fraud happening through this popular site. Summary: only buy/sell locally, and never wire money. Ever.

“10 Ways to Avoid Sneaky Work-at-home Scams” is exactly what it sounds like. Summary: the economy is weak and these scams are only going to become more common.

“Beware of Cash For Clunkers Scams.” I’ve covered this here before, but the Eastern Michigan BBB has some more information on the topic. Summary: CARS works by taking your heap, junker or jalopy (or “hoopty,” in the parlance of our times) to a dealer and trading it. There is no pre-registration or anything.

We’ll return to the Identity Theft Myths next Monday. Until then, have fun.