I’ve spotted some amazing deals on Craigslist, but I also know people sometimes get screwed (out of money!) on Craigslist. How can I weed out the scams from the legit listings and make sure I get the best buys?
Craigslist is a terrific resource for nabbing great deals on everything from furniture to bicycles to electronics—but it’s also full of duds and scams. Although not all listings on Craigslist are fraud attempts, it’s smart to take extra precautions when buying from any stranger online (whether on Craigslist or eBay or another buy-and-sell site). Here are a few things you can do before and during the sale to make sure you don’t get ripped off.
While Searching: Watch Out for Red Flags in Craigslist Listings
The risks: getting suckered out of your money, giving up personal info to a scammer, and losing your faith in humanity
How can you spot a Craigslist scam? Many of them feature the same telltale signs:
- An abundance of spelling and grammatical errors. A typo here and there is forgivable, but when a listing is riddled with poor English, it’s an indication an overseas scammer posted the ad using automated translators—or the person behind the ad just doesn’t care about the listing. Either way, you probably want to stay clear.
- Generic product photos. Look for real photos instead of the typical product pics or photos found elsewhere on the web. It’s hard to believe the seller actually has the item in question if he’s using PR photos.
- Ad posted in multiple places. Sellers are only allowed to post their ad in one city. If you see the same ad posted word for word in a distant city, that’s a huge red flag. You can search all Craigslist sites at once with previously mentioned Search All Craig’s or more recently highlighted Craiggers. Search Google for the ad wording to see if it’s been posted elsewhere or check the Craigslist Scammers blog dedicated to just this purpose.
- Too good to be true. The biggest telltale sign of a Craigslist (or other) scam is if the ad promises a ridiculously good deal. When you’re buying from sellers seemingly desperate to get rid of their used stuff, it’s hard to know what’s a true offer or just bait for your personal info. Know what your product is selling for (see below) and, if you have any doubt, pass on it.
Craigslist offers other common sense rules to avoid scams, including only meeting in person for local listings, never wiring any money, and never giving out any personal or financial information.
When You’ve Found an Item to Buy: Vet the Seller and Know Your Product
The risks: wasting your time buying a fake or a broken item or something other than what you’re expecting; paying too much for it
Let’s say you found what looks to be a legit deal—the photos are unique and the listing doesn’t look like typical Craigslist scams. Now it’s time to ask some questions and find out more about the seller and the item.
Ask detailed questions about the item you want to buy over multiple emails or calls. Does the laptop come with all the installation CDs and has a virus scan been done on it recently? For an apartment rental, what’s included in the rent or what amenities are nearby (you can verify this with Google Maps)? What problems or issues with the item has the seller had? Why is this person selling the item? What’s the exact model number of the item? Asking questions like this not only gives you more information about the product, it verifies the seller has firsthand knowledge of it.
For whatever you’re buying, also look up ahead of time common problems with the item and how to spot a fake. Google “common problems with [X product]” or “how to spot a fake [X product]” to find the right questions to ask and things to look for when testing out the item in person (see below). You can also check for recalled items at several government sites.
Look the seller up. Search the seller’s email address and phone number on both Craigslist and Google. Look up the seller’s name on Facebook and White Pages services (see if the address matches, too, if you’re given one).
Check if the price is right. Although a lot of items on Craigslist may be great deals, sometimes the prices really don’t make sense. In a Priceonomics study, people sold their used TVs on Craigslist for 14% less than the same TV was selling new, but a 30% discount for headphones. The 14% discount, Priceonomics says, isn’t enough of a deal for the hassle of possibly buying a dud. Sellers, apparently, were pricing their items based on the original prices they paid—not the market value at the time, which made them price their used TVs too high. Check out price guide Pricenomics to find acceptiable price ranges and recommended used prices. You should also check the going prices for that specific model/item on Amazon and other retailers. Want an even better deal? If you’re ready to haggle, use the 15-to-20 percent rule to find a more reasonable price (sellers may be adding in this haggling price too).
At the Exchange: Meet Safely and Inspect the Item
The risks: getting robbed or physically hurt; not noticing problems or missing features until after you’ve parted with your money
Ready to buy? Now comes the most anxiety-ridden part: the exchange.
Meet in a public location, such as a bank or coffeeshop. Craigslist says meeting in person will help you avoid 99% of scam attempts on the classifieds service. Meeting face-to-face can still be risky though, so to avoid the chance of being robbed, meet in a public place—preferably one with lots of witnesses and security cameras. A bank lobby, Gizmodo suggests, is perfect because you and the seller can withdraw and deposit cash without having to carry it around. If a bank lobby seems too odd to conduct your personal secondhand buying business, a hotel lobby, busy gas station, coffeeshop, or similar location would work (and these also usually provide ATMs for easy access to cash). (Note: Buy & Flip advises not using a parking lot, mall, or fast food restaurant because people aren’t actually paying attention there. I think Starbucks or Barnes & Noble may be perfect because of how busy these locations are and you have outlets for testing electronic items.)
Bring a friend. Go with a friend or family member for additional protection. He or she can also help you evaluate the item in question.
Kick the tires. Make sure you test everything and try using the product before you pay for it. For a used computer, check the ports, make sure you have the license keys and admin account information, confirm the battery life is what’s expected and all the specs match, and look for things like massive dust buildup. Before you buy a cell phone, make sure it can be activated by verifying the electronic serial number or ESN with your cell phone provider or at CheckESNFree. If you’re buying a car, make sure all the paperwork is available (registration papers, titles, and maintenance information) and look for other stolen car signs. If it’s got a plug, plug it in to see if it works. Push all the buttons, and try all the features.
After all your sleuthing and research, hopefully you’ll end up with a proud purchase.
P.S. See our Definitive Craigslist Guide for the Recession and How to Avoid Getting Scammend When Buying or Selling Online for even more advice. Or share your tips and experience with us in the comments.
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Photo remixed from an original by bioraven (Shutterstock)