Craigslist was started in 1995 by a guy named Craig so his pals could join a then-new email distribution list to promote attendance at local events in the San Francisco Bay area of California.
The novel service became a website in 1996 and began to list ads sorted by classified categories. In 2000, craigslist became available to cities across the United States. Today, people from 70 countries can set up a web-based sales stand.
Originally, the free-and-easy accounts let sellers post text and a few images to attract prospective buyers from the local community. Sellers could provide a contact email address or phone number. Negotiations were usually straightforward and fair. Cash was the medium of exchange and hardly anyone ever asked for a receipt. A handshake sealed the deal as the happy buyer drove off into the sunset with a new treasure or bargain. No refunds, as is, let’s do this thing and get on with life: badda-bang, badda-bing, badda-boom.
Craigslist was a brilliant idea for its time – when the internet was still brand new and users were figuring out what they could do with it – so brilliant that Weird Al Yankovic wrote and recorded a hilarious style parody of the Doors which begins:
“You’ve got a ’65 Chevy Malibu
With automatic drive
And custom paint job, too.
I’ll trade you for my old wheelbarrow
And a slightly-used sombrero
And I’ll even throw in a stapler if you insist…
The basic concept of the web-based marketplace remains unchanged and wonderful in its simplicity: would-be sellers prepare text advertisements in plain text or HTML and publish them. These days, a post may feature up to 24 images. Sales ads are still free of charge. Employers can post a Want Ad for $25 or pay $5 to find helpers for a temporary or short-time “Gig.”
People still work out an acceptable trade by email, phone or text and the buyer shows up with a cash payment. After some more haggling – this is optional – the deal is made or the seller keeps the item for the next person who answered the post.
Over the decades, though, craigslist (online veterans still use the initial lowercase letter rather than a capital ‘C’) has evolved into something else: this bright place in cyberspace where good, honest people help each other has an increasing number of dark, shadowy corners where criminals are plotting to do no good.
Scammers target craigslist users by trolling the ads for high-priced items. For example, I recently tossed some fraud chum in the water when I listed a memory foam mattress and box set for some hundreds of dollars and provided contact by text (something I don’t always do because it attracts fraudsters).
After a flurry of standard scam responses, in broken English and easy to detect, one came in that seemed genuine. The first salvo repeated the title of my craigslist post with the price and location for pick-up. Then came the first question:
“Can I know if you still have this for sale? let me know as soon as possible. Rose.”
I answered that yes, the item was still available and thanked her for her interest.
Here was volley #2 from the opposition – Rose:
“I’m ready to purchase. I will not be able to come look at this & pay in cash as I just moved out of town. Can I send you a Certified Bank cheque from my bank? After the Check clears will send movers to come for pick-up. Regards.”
The mention of a certified check and movers pricked up the little hairs on the back of my neck. I smelled something fishy going on so I answered:
“That is a shame. Cash payment and local pickup only, as posted. Thanks again.”
Rose’s first response arrived the next day: three question marks (???). Then, this text arrived:
“How about we pick up after check goes through. Am actually undergoing 8 weeks chemotherapy which barely allows me tend to anything…if ok, send your fullname and address to mail you the check asap.”
Chemotherapy?!? This smelled even fishier so I countered:
“This seems like a strange arrangement, trusting me with a prepayment to buy a mattress without inspection.”
I then said I’d like to work out this transaction and asked Rose for her name and address, adding that “I’m just concerned about scams on craigslist, nothing personal.”
“Am Rose Walters,” came the reply.
I asked again where she lives and got a text back:
Inspiration then struck me (sometimes it takes a while) and I searched online for the keywords “craigslist scam certified check movers” which confirmed my spidey-sense. Yup. Scammers will mail a real-looking certified bank check to the address you give and your bank will be happy to deposit it and credit your account.
But in a few days, expect a notice from your bank that the check was rubber and bounced. Now, you are responsible to pay back your bank which might hit you up with a $25 or more processing fee.
One article gave oodles of excellent anti-scam tips, including being suspicious of people who offer to pay by certified check, just moved or live out of state and, therefore, aren’t available and must use an agent:
“If someone starts talking about being from out of town, or wants to arrange for another person to pick up what you’re selling, or hits you with some sob story about being ill or unemployed or homeless or something, just stop. It’s trouble.”
You don’t have to tell me twice. I’m done with this dirty rotten scammer. No more texts. Let sleeping dogs lie. I provided no personal information other than my first name and cell phone number, both posted in the ad.
Hopefully, you will have gleaned some valuable information on how to protect yourself and those you love from being defrauded in an online scam. Pass the good word, y’hear?