Like childbirth or a Las Vegas vacation, no one comes away from buying or selling something on Craigslist without a story.
The website that started in 1995 as one man’s mode of sharing announcements and party invites with friends is now one of the world’s largest virtual flea markets, used in about 50 countries and operating in more than a half-dozen languages.
But for every Craigslist success story — “I furnished my entire house for less than $1,000!” — there is a cautionary tale, the most sensational of which fueled “The Craigslist Killer,” a 2011 Lifetime movie based on the story of Philip Markoff. He was indicted by a grand jury in Boston for robbing and killing women he allegedly met through the (now closed) Craigslist adult services section. Markoff committed suicide before being tried for those crimes.
More common lately are those who misuse Craigslist for purposes other than its original community-minded listings, namely real estate scams offering fictional rentals, and phishing scams targeted at gleaning personal and financial information from people who are simply trying to sell secondhand merchandise.
Dawn Venezuela became a Craigslist fan about six years after being able to use the site to quickly find a rental when she really needed one. Since then, Craigslist posts have provided the Denver mother of three with a free vacuum cleaner and the location of her lost dog after he ran away. Her husband, a car guy, also used Craigslist to barter two old beaters for a classic lowrider.
But one recent Craigslist exchange reminded Venezuela, 40, that exercising caution is prudent when dealing with strangers.
She had been surfing through the Denver listings for free stuff in search of someone’s unwanted landscaping materials when she came across an ad from a man offering thick slate tile for free.
“First, I sent him a message and gave him my work phone number,” she recalls. “I just figured, if he’s going to be a weirdo, he can call my work phone, no big deal. And he was pretty quick about it. But when he did call, he said ‘Well, there are two conditions (for the free tile). The first one is, I’ve got an equal amount of trash that needs to be disposed…’”
Venezuela thought for a moment before opting to shut down the conversation immediately.
“It just didn’t seem right,” she says. “What kind of trash can’t you throw away yourself?”
Unwanted stuff avoids the landfill
Seasoned Craigslist seller Elaine St. Louis, on the other hand, says her five years of setting up exchanges of her second-hand stuff through the site have been “the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Just recently, St. Louis found a buyer for a 15-year-old Ryobi sander, which she unloaded for $10, and another buyer for a complete home-brewing kit, which she sold for $225 to a new brewing hobbyist who was “absolutely thrilled to get it.”
Still no takers, however, for St. Louis’ model ship kit, which she picked up for $200 while vacationing in France 20 years ago. (She’s asking $125 for it.)
“Every single person I’ve met on Craigslist has been wonderful,” says St. Louis, 54, the art director at Colorado Homes Lifestyles magazine.
Nonetheless, she tends to arrange to meet buyers in the lobby of her office. And when merchandise is too big to haul along to work, she makes sure someone else is home with her when a Craigslist buyer plans to stop by.
Her biggest tip for keeping Craigslist clean and avoiding the current uptick in user scams?
“Report it right away,” she says. “If you report it, it goes away.”
Craigslist maintains a flagging system in which users are expected to police each other. When a post or e-mail address is flagged multiple times, the staff removes it. But that hasn’t prevented scamming on the site from becoming prevalent enough that independent watchdogs are now trying to help via sites and blogs like Craigslistofscammers.com and Craigslistscammer.blogspot.com. The latter includes posts that outline a very common Craigslist scam: potential buyers contacting sellers only via e-mail, and then sending them bad checks for the purchase. This, too, is simply another phishing scam.
That Craigslist is so very public and easy to use — featuring the simplest of formats with a white background, blue lettering and easy-to-navigate categories and lists — is the same reason the site has thrived and has suffered, says marketing and consumer affairs professor Prashant Malviya at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.
“Craigslist has had a very laissez-faire attitude” toward people misusing the site, Malviya says. (This could be the reason a Craigslist spokesperson failed to reply by our publication deadline to multiple requests to contribute to this story.) “Their attitude is… people will police themselves.”
And in fact, it’s fairly easy to locate the site’s advice for avoiding scams and frauds, and suggestions for staying safe while using the site. (Just find the main Craigslist page for your town, then check the left column, beneath “event calendar.”)
But Malviya says scams may persist on Craigslist because although flagging is its proverbial stick, Craigslist has no carrot, or consequence, for misusing the site, a la eBay or etsy’s feedback system.
“The problem with Craigslist,” he concludes, “is that it’s just gotten too successful. So people are exploiting it for reasons and purposes that go against the spirit in which it was created.”
Elana Ashanti Jefferson: 303-954-1957 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Craigslist best practices
• Deal locally so you can meet the people in person.
• Never wire funds via Western Union, Money Gram or any other wire service.
• Know that fake cashier’s checks and money orders are common. Banks will cash them and then hold you responsible for the money.
• Craigslist provides no “buyer protection” or “seller certification.”
• Never give out your financial information.
• Avoid deals involving shipping or escrow services.
• Only a scammer will “guarantee” your transaction.
• Never rent housing without seeing it first; never purchase expensive items sight-unseen.
• Never submit to a credit check or background check for a job or house listed on Craigslist until you have met the interviewer or landlord in person.
And these are the tips from the site for staying safe during Craigs- list merchandise sales.
• Insist on a public meeting place like a cafe.
• Do not meet in a secluded place, or invite strangers into your home.
• Be especially careful when buying/selling high-value items.
• Tell a friend or family memberwhere you’re going to meet some-one you contacted through Craigslist.
• Take your cellphone along with you.
• Consider having a friend accompany you during Craigslist purchases.
• Trust your instincts.
These tips for buying and selling via Craigslist were gleaned from seasoned users of the site.
• Price your things reasonably, as if you were having a yard sale. You are not going to get retail price for your used item.
• If you’re unsure about how to price something, do some research. Many secondhand sellers find a quick eBay search will reveal the going market price for your item.
• Include pictures and plenty of details. Buyer may not even bother with an ad that fails to include the brand, age, condition, color, etc.
• Answer e-mails. If the item has been sold, have the courtesy to take down the ad and to notify potential buyers.
• Ask questions before buying and test anything before you leave. Don’t assume that something advertised is in working condition, or that you can bring it back.
• Feel free to negotiate.
• Never show up without intending to purchase. “That’s rude and a waste of time,” says one longtime Craigslist user. “Just because it is the Internet, doesn’t mean that common courtesy doesn’t apply.”
Elana Ashanti Jefferson
Get the app. iPhone and iPad toting Craigslist devotees may want to consider investing $1.99 in the “Craigslist Mobile + Alerts” application. It provides access to all the site’s features, formatted to suit those devices. It also includes a map browser, multicity search capability, a photo browser, ad posting directly from your device, ZIP code-based searching, and more. The app has a 5-star rating in Apple’s iTunes store.