Beat Craigslist Scams and Stay Safe When Buying or Selling

Avoiding Craigslist scams is sometimes as easy as not clicking on any links or only accepting cash payments, however, scammers are finding new ways to trick and defraud you.

Bridget Clerkin
Updated 15 December 2021
Beat Craigslist Scams and Stay Safe When Buying or Selling

Phishing Statistics 2021

90% of data breaches are caused by phishing
3.4 billion phishing emails are sent every day

1.4 million phishing websites are created every month

Source: Digital InTheRound, 2021

Sections on this page
  1. 4 of the Most Common Craigslist Scams
  2. Red Flags of Craigslist Scams
  3. How to Beat Craigslist Scams
  4. Have You Fallen For a Craigslist Scam?
  5. Frequently Asked Questions About Craigslist Scams

As one of the original online replacements for everything from personal ads to garage sales, Craigslist has become one of the most popular websites on the internet. Unfortunately, its popularity has resulted in a rise in Craigslist scams.

The site’s fast-and-loose format, allowing nearly anyone to post about almost anything, invites as many opportunities to score a great deal as it does to fall victim to a “deal” that’s genuinely too good to be true.

The next time you’re looking for something on the site—whether it be big-ticket items like cars, apartments, event tickets, or even something on a much smaller scale—remember to proceed with caution and keep an eye out for any red flags.

4 of the Most Common Craigslist Scams

Many Craigslist scammers pose as “buyers,” that is, people who are responding to your ad, supposedly interested in purchasing whatever you’re selling. However, a majority of Craigslist scams operate on the side of the seller.

It’s simply much easier for scammers to pose as sellers, take your money or information, and then disappear without ever having made good on their side of the bargain. Here are some examples of some of the most common Craigslist scams out there from both buyers and sellers:

Craigslist Cashier’s Check Scams

Most of the time, these scams involve someone claiming to be overseas—or at least far enough away to avoid making an in-person payment.

Instead, they’ll offer to send you a cashier’s check or money order. But either the check will bounce, or they’ll “realize” that the cashier’s check they sent you—which is a fake—was written out for “too much,” and they’ll ask you to wire-transfer the difference over.

Craigslist Rental Scams

One of the biggest Craigslist scams is the Craigslist rental scam.

This happens when you’re looking for a home, apartment, or room to rent and are essentially asked to pay for the security deposit—and possibly several months’ worth of rent—up-front, usually before getting a chance to check out the property.

Most of the time, these are perpetrated by “landlords” that claim to be out of town, usually because a sudden work or life-related circumstance had them leave unexpectedly for an extended period. They’ll ask you to “take good care” of their home and promise to FedEx you a key after you make your payment—and possibly also give out some personal information on a rental agreement form.

Selling Items Still Being Financed

This form of Craigslist fraud is most prevalent in cars, phones, or other expensive items that tend to make their way to the online garage sale.

It may be slightly easier to discover whether a car still has a lien (loan) taken out on it (and you should always ask for a vehicle’s vehicle identification number (VIN) to double-check this information). Still, it can be much trickier with cell phones. Typically, the phone’s original buyer will pay it off over months or years through additional payments added to their phone bill.

And if they stop making those payments, retribution can be swift—and brutal. They can switch off their cell phone service, and your number can get blacklisted just days after a missed payment. And when it comes to cars, the overdue loans are often put in the hands of debt collectors and less-than-friendly repo businesses.

Fake Escrow Accounts

It didn’t take long for scammers to realize that people were rightfully wary of sending money off to strangers from the internet. Another type of popular scam blossomed in the wake of that knowledge—utilizing the escrow, or “third party” account, for payments.

Escrows are essentially middlemen, a neutral business handling the money on behalf of both parties, making them an attractive option for many online sales—especially those on more expensive items like cars. And there are, indeed, many legitimate online escrow businesses out there.

But in the scam version of this scenario, the escrow company recommended by the seller is a fraud. These fake escrow sites can either be used to steal money from you directly, steal your personal information, or both.

Red Flags of Craigslist Scams

As the world continues to develop ways to buy and sell things and exchange money through online forums, the types of scams created to take advantage of these digital interactions have also evolved.  

Indeed, scams are a bit like the fabled Hydra, the nine-headed monster of Greek mythology who would grow back two heads for everyone that got cut off. Every time one solution is created to identify or shut scams down, scammers come up with multiple other ways to work around them.

The Ad Itself

Before you even contact a job poster, there are a few tell-tale signs about the ad itself that point to a scam being in play, including:

Example Communication with Scammer

I have sent you a cashier's check which is approved by bank and will clear within 24 hours of deposit. My movers will come pick the item up from you once you receive the check. 

  • A lack of details, or vague ones at best (for example, no address listed for a rental listing)
  • Generic stock photos used
  • Same ad posted in several cities/areas
  • Deals that seem too good to be true
  • Mentions of a “Craigslist guarantee” or any type of “guarantee”

These are not the only signs of a scam but some of the most consistent red flags. It’s always important to, above all, listen to your gut. If you feel like something in the ad or interaction is off—it probably is.

Craigslist scams
Fake escrow sites will have telltale signs like grammatical errors and bad design.

The Contact

Craigslist fraud is so rampant partly because the site allows posters to post anonymously or otherwise easily create multiple or fraudulent accounts.

When dealing with someone you’ve contacted from Craigslist, some red flags to watch for include someone who is:

  • Refusing or otherwise being unable to meet face to face
  • Not local to you
  • Eager to get things done quickly/puts a lot of pressure on you to close a deal
  • Communicating a particularly heavy “sob story”
  • Avoiding answering your questions or offering sufficient (or logical) details

Even if you’ve looked over the post and thought things seemed okay, these could be additional signs you’re about to be scammed.

Craigslist scams
Scammers will claim they accidentally transferred too much money, then ask you to wire back the difference.

How to Beat Craigslist Scams

When using Craigslist—whether to buy or sell things—it’s essential to stay aware of the situation at hand and the types of people you’re dealing with.

When a seller on Craigslist is unable or refuses to meet you in person so you can see the item for yourself, it's safest to back out of the transaction. Refusing to show you the item in person is one of the biggest signs of a Craigslist scam.  

To avoid falling for a Craigslist scam, you should never:

  • Pay anyone you haven’t met in person
  • Wire funds
  • Accept a cashier’s/certified check or money order
  • Give out any personal information, including your Social Security number, birthday, address, password, or any other potentially identifying details
  • Give out any financial information, including bank account numbers, PIN, and credit card numbers
  • Purchase something without seeing it first
  • Submit to a background or credit check until you have met the landlord in person

But do take special precaution when considering deals that include:

  • Escrow accounts
  • Shipping items

You can also further protect yourself by:

  • Only dealing locally
  • Meeting in person/examine an object before purchasing it
  • Accept cash for payments only
  • Creating a disposable phone number on a service like Google Voice to deal with the person
  • Research any person, company, or product they’re selling as much as you can before making a decision

Have You Fallen For a Craigslist Scam?

Sometimes despite all our precautions, things happen, and we fall victim to a scam.

If this has happened to you, it’s okay. Though there’s no official count, thousands of people get scammed on Craigslist every year. And there are several avenues you can take to help correct the situation.

Flag the Post and Report it to Craigslist 

First, you should flag the post, which is as easy as clicking on the flag icon on the top of the listing. This will alert Craigslist to look over the post for any potential problems. You can also notify the site directly through the Craigslist customer service page.

These actions are essential when encountering a scam because it helps the site identify and remove bad posts—saving others from falling victim to the same crime. It may also alert Craigslist to a fraudulent user and enable the company to cancel the bad account.

You should also report the scam to Craigslist and provide as much information as possible, including your conversations with the scammer. 

Flag Craigslist scams by clicking the flag item on the post
If you come across a Craigslist scam, click the "flag" on the post itself.

Report Craigslist Scams to Authorities

Depending on the type of scam—and how far it went—you may also have some additional avenues for recourse.

If it involves a high-ticket item, you can report the case to your local police, which can help you pursue charges and possibly recover any stolen money or items.

Cancel the Payment

Depending on how you paid, you can try to stop the charge or have your money returned. (If you used Venmo, for example, there might be a small window of opportunity to put a stop to your payment—but you will have to contact that company directly.)

Frequently Asked Questions About Craigslist Scams

How do I report Craigslist scams?

If you've fallen victim to a Craigslist scam or think you've identified a scam posting, you can send a message to Craigslist online. Be sure to provide as much information as possible.

How can I avoid Craigslist scams?

The best way to avoid Craigslist scams is to look out for the red flags when dealing with potential buyers and sellers. These include (but aren't limited to) sellers asking for payment in unusual forms, a listing that uses stock photos (or no photos at all), and sellers who refuse to meet in person.

Can I sell a car on Craigslist without getting scammed?

It is possible to sell or buy a car on Craigslist without getting scammed as long as you look out for the red flags and stay vigilant. 

Is it safe to use Craigslist to buy/sell items?

As with most classified websites, there is always a risk when buying or selling items. Since the platform is public and doesn't vet its users, there is always a possibility of getting scammed. To stay safe while using Craigslist, be sure to look out for red flags and always proceed with caution. 


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