I spend so much of my time on computer and Internet security issues that I sometime forget that good old-fashioned scams are part and parcel of the dangers of being online as well. I was reminded of that when a Washington, DC area friend called me recently to ask if she should provide credit card information online for a Craigslist's apartment rental. I checked it out, and boy, am I glad I did.
I called the contact info for the rental listing, and asked why they needed her credit card information. After fumbling for an answer like a five-year old trying to explain why the cookie jar was empty for a few minutes, they hung up. Further checking revealed that the 'rental' apartment was already happily occupied by its owner.
It turns out that not only was it a scam to get the information they needed to loot her bank and credit-card accounts, there was never an apartment to rent in the first place. Nor, I found out, was this some kind of rare episode. I discovered that these identity thieves are hijacking real estate listings, copying the house or apartment details and photos to Craigslist, and then advertising them as 'rental properties.'
Then, when you show interest in renting the place, usually at a great price below the current market, they ask for your credit information so they can run a 'credit check.' What they're actually doing is ripping you off.
A recent report from my local Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper revealed that there's another variation on the fake rental property rip. In this one, the reason for the unbelievable price is that "(the homeowner) and his wife took a job in West Africa, doing missionary work for the Lord."
After some checking, I found that Craigslist-based fraud isn't just about cars. There are also daily attempts to rip you off with concert and sport ticket scams; new and used car sales rip-offs; fake escrow services; and money orders.
If you get ripped off, you can't expect Craigslist to bail you out. Craigslist is really just the world's biggest bulletin board. While they'll take down ads that are shown to be fraudulent, they do no checking of ads themselves. Nor, does Craigslist have anything to do with payments, guarantees, acting as escrow service, etc., etc. Your dog, if he could type, could post an ad: "One cat, slightly used, free to a good home," and that would be fine by Craigslist.
The only protection you've got is common sense. Craigslist does provide a decent list of security basics. These include such fundamentals as:
1. Deal locally with public you can meet. To, which I will add, meeting them at midnight at the back of an abandoned warehouse, unless you're Jack Bauer.
2. Never use wire services, like Western Union. I didn't think it was that bad, but Craigslist says that anyone who asks you to use one is a scammer.
3. Be very, very wary of postal money orders and cashier checks. Many of these are fake, and if you get stuck with one, your bank is not likely to be understanding about it.
4. Never, ever give out your financial information, and yes, that includes PayPal.
In short, being paranoid in real life may be a mental illness, but when it comes to buying things on Craigslist, it's smart.