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The Safe Way to Buy Things on Craigslist

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I was sure my husband had just been scammed, and that he would never see the $1,500 cash he had just spent on a dirt bike he found on Craigslist. He had driven about two hours from our home to buy the bike but when he tried to register it at DMV, he discovered he couldn’t. The bill of sale he had wasn’t sufficient and the information he had been given by the seller wasn’t matching up. It looked as if he may have been sold a stolen bike.

If he had been scammed, he wouldn’t be the first person in that situation. A friend confessed her husband had lost $3,000 in a Craigslist scam involving a car that probably never existed.

Craigslist can be a great way to sell stuff. (If you’re trying to get out of debt, for example, selling things you don’t need or use on Craigslist can help you get cash to pay off debt or boost your savings.) It can also be a good way to pick up bargains, especially on used items. Whether it’s kitchen appliances, exercise equipment or even cars or boats, the free site can put buyers in touch with sellers.

If you are a buyer, the most important thing is that you protect yourself. Second, you want to make sure you get what the seller is promising, in the condition promised and that you can pick up the item safely. (Avoiding dangerous situations is huge: There have been homicides linked to would-be buyers going to pick up items that did not even exist.)

Here are some tips from security pros for shopping safely on Craigslist.

Stick to Craigslist. If a seller immediately tries to route you off Craigslist to their own email address, be careful, warns security expert Robert A. Grimes, who wrote an amusing account on InfoWorld.com about one of his friends who enjoys wasting Craigslist scammers’ time. “Scammers want to get you off the site before anyone notices the fraud,” he says. At the same time, if you get to the point where you are serious about buying you want to verify the person you are dealing with. If all your communication has been through Craigslist or text messages, a phone call might be a good idea. 

Widen your search. Lifehacker recommends a tool called SearchAllJunk.com because sellers are only supposed to post a Craigslist ad in one city. If the item shows up in multiple areas you’ll want to proceed with caution. Sure, it’s possible a seller may ignore the rules and try to post in two or three not-too-distant cities, but if the same item shows up in California and Florida, that’s a huge red flag. (We once inquired about a horse supposedly located in Georgia. The seller seemed sketchy and my daughter later found pictures of the same horse — with a different name — in Texas and Virginia.)

Meet in a safe place. Choose a well-trafficked place to conduct business if possible. Where I live, a local police station has designated itself a “safe place” for Craigslist transactions and encouraged buyers and sellers to meet there. If you’re buying a bulky item (think furniture, appliances) that’s harder, so you may want to bring a friend along. If you can’t, at least tell someone where you are going and what you want them to do if you don’t check back with them in a reasonable time. And tell the seller that if the item looks good you’ll go to a nearby ATM to get cash. Don’t wave it around ahead of time. (Police warn not to accept a last-minute change in location.) Craigslist also has a list of safety tips on the site for buyers and sellers.

Get a receipt. If you are buying something valuable or expensive, insist on a detailed, signed, written receipt with the seller’s details. If there is a hidden problem later, your receipt will be the only proof you have. (Keep in mind, though, you are likely buying the item “as is.” So inspect it carefully.) If you’re buying a car, getting an inspection by a mechanic is wise, if possible. (You may have to pay for it yourself though.) Make sure there is a clear title and registration or other documentation that proves the person selling it is the owner and that you are free to register it in your name.

Never send money to a scammer. This sounds simple enough, but every day people send money to crooks. If an item is out of state and must be shipped, you may want to use a service like Escrow.com to facilitate the sale. Scammers want instant, untraceable funds, which is why they choose money transfers or prepaid cards. (Here are some more scams to look out for this year.)

In my my husband’s case, we got lucky. He made the trip back to the seller’s location — not without a lot of trepidation, though — and got his money back. He ended up buying a different bike from someone else, and this time was able to successfully register it.  

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