Buying or Selling? An Investigation into Craigslist Scams

It seems no matter where you turn; someone is waiting to rip you off.   Our inboxes drown in spam and phishing messages that attempt to discover bank account information or account credentials.  A large percentage of the banner ads on social networking sites advertise various get rich schemes designed to take money from those tempted by their fantastic claims.  It seems that everywhere we look there is a scam.  Craigslist, a popular classified advertising website, is a great resource for both buyers and sellers.  However, it has its fair share of nefarious individuals committing scams too.  This is the report on an investigation of two scams I recently uncovered on Craigslist

When I recently decided to upgrade my MacBook laptop, I thought it would be easiest to purchase a used one locally on Craigslist. Craigslist is free to use and has become immensely popular for the local exchange of goods and services, but it was not designed to protect users from online transaction fraud. I listed my old laptop and searched for a newer one on Craigslist and found scams on both fronts.  I pursued the scams so that I could gain the inside scoop on how they operate to help you avoid these traps and keep your hard-earned money.

The seller’s scam:

I saw a MacBook for sale and the ad read “15 – MacBook Pro 8GB RAM/Wi-Fi must sell ASAP – $600.”  There was not much information on the MacBook except that they needed to sell it quickly and to contact them for more details.  I politely responded to the ad to request more information on the laptop and asked some specific questions regarding the processor type and so forth.  I received a reply the next day as depicted below along with several pictures of the MacBook on a kitchen counter with a lady’s hand holding it.

MacBookPro151

Scammers know that the small things build trust and make buyers more comfortable.  First, they did not reply right away.  They waited a day to make it feel like I was communicating with a person who had a day job.  Second, the pictures were not stock photos but very natural, unprofessional pictures designed to prove that the MacBook was in their possession and that they were just a typical seller.

Hi, I am getting back to you regarding the 15″ MacBook PRO from Craigslist My name is Emily and I am now in Vancouver, BC, Canada. The MacBook is still available and I hope you are still interested.I am selling the MacBook for $600 USD. I have attached some pics with it to this email. It’s 2.50 GHZ i7, has 8 GB of RAM, 1 GB of Video Memory and 256 GB SSD (works 5 times faster as a normal HD) of storage. The MacBook was bought brand new from Apple a couple of months ago. About the MacBook I can say it’s in perfect shape, as I used it only for a few weeks. Included in the $600 price is everything that came with the MacBook PRO and also the warranty papers. I tried to be as thorough as I could with the presentation so you can have all the info if you decide to go ahead and buy it. So what do you think? Do you want my MacBook? Thanks, Emily

The language of the introductory email is very casual.  The sentence about trying to be as thorough as possible gives the email a feeling of honesty and genuineness while informing you that the item is now in Canada, so there is not a possibility for a local trade, the primary reason for using Craigslist.

I replied to the email simply asking how she wanted to conduct the sale.  I expected that the seller would suggest that I use PayPal and then tell me all about the “buyer protection.”  Buyer protection is mainly intended for eBay transactions, and a crafty seller can send an invoice with very little information so that PayPal investigations will have a difficult time determining whether the terms of the agreement were met and whether payment is justified.

I was considering possible safe methods of performing this sale, and I came up with two ideas.  The first would be to use an escrow service which is a trusted third party to the exchange that retains both the product and the money, delivering the product once the money is paid to the escrow service and paying the money to the seller once the buyer declares the goods to be satisfactory.  The second option would be for the seller to ship the item to someone local so that the sale could be completed locally with cash.

The next afternoon I received an email from the seller as follows:

I was checking for a way to make the exchange from here to you in the US and I came across this option, which is a very good way to make this exchange. It’s provide by a company called Interparcel and it will help us with this transaction. They seem designed specifically for internet transactions, they handle both the payment and delivery part of this transaction. They seem pretty nice and trustworthy and they provide a service that we can use for our exchange. The link below is from Interparcel website and it explains their procedure. Please check the link and the procedure and let me know if you agree to the terms. http://www.canada-interparcel.com/en_language.internet.transactions/third.party.html With this procedure Interparcel will deliver the macbook to you, receive your payment and I will receive the payment for the macbook only after you instruct them to do so. I will pay the shipping. Let me know if we can proceed. Thanks, Emily.

I was surprised by this email because she suggested using an escrow service which would seem to be a safe way for me to purchase the laptop but I was also well aware of the various fake escrow scams out there, so I did some research.  You can use Escrow Fraud’s search to determine if an escrow service is legitimate.  I researched Interparcel, and it seemed like a reputable escrow service so I told her that this would be acceptable, and she said she would drop it off with Interparcel in a few days.  I later received this message from her.

I sent the macbook earlier today. The clerk from Interparcel said that they will inspect the macbook and then send you the invoice. Please add customerdepartment@canada-interparcel.com to your email address book in order to guarantee the delivery of their emails to your inbox. Thanks, Emily.

Note the red flag in this message.  First, she asks me to add customerdepartment@canada-interparcel.com to my address book.  That would seem odd for someone who is not familiar with their services.  Second, the email address does not seem like one that would be used by Interparcel.  “Customer service” is a term I might expect or “sales” but not “customer department.”  The email address is also not from Interparcel.  Usually, a company will own a domain name, and they may use subdomains for individual sites or email domains.  The subdomains, however, will have a period between the domain name and the subdomain.  If this were an Interparcel email, the address would have been customerdepartment@canada.interparcel.com.

Searching Google, Yahoo and Bing for Canada-interparcel.com did not return a web site and a whois search on the domain Canada-interparcel.com was full of *****@privacyprotect.org values seen here with the exception of a location listed as Nobby Beach in Australia.  A reputable company would provide their business name and some information in these fields.  You can also see that the site was only registered on May 22, 2012, so this is a brand new web site, and it expires in 1 year.  Most companies have had a web presence for quite some time, and they typically renew their domain names for multiple years.  If you receive an email from a company, and you do not find information in the whois or if you see that it was registered in the last year, consider it another red flag.

InterparcelScam04

An email allegedly from Interparcel arrived later in the day, but it was from customerdepartment@can-interparcel.com.  A whois search of can-interparcel.com provided similar information with the exception that this one was registered in Panama.

 InterparcelScam02
InterparcelScam01

As you can see the invoice allegedly from Interparcel looks quite good.  It is, in fact, just a message made to look like an Interparcel invoice.  The red flag in this message is seen on page 2 where rather than paying to Interparcel; they want you to make a wire payment to some “agent” named Jacob Mansell.  Second, they want the wire payment to be made through Western Union.  There is no way to get your money back after you send it through Western Union, and Western Union is not one of the payment methods listed on Interparcel’s web site, so it is clear that this is a scam.  No item would ever be sent out after payment was sent but the scammer did her best to try to make it seem like she was honest and legitimate.  If you do use an escrow service, call the company to verify that the escrow invoice is valid and do not enter personal financial information into their web site.  Use a service that you already trust to pay the escrow.

The buyer’s scam:

The “buyer’s scam” is less sophisticated than the aforementioned “seller’s scam” and it seems that many more people are using it.  I listed my MacBook for sale on Craigslist and received text messages and emails within an hour of posting the item.  They would ask if the item was for sale and after I replied that it was, they would send me a template message with some reason for me to ship the item to another place rather than sell it locally.  Here are some examples:

Scammer: Thanks.  Sounds good.  All I need is your full support and trust ok.  I am not local as you can see from my phone number.  I am from New York and I am buying this as a gift for my fiancé Alex Matthew.  He just got a transfer from here in New York to (FAAN) Federal Air Authority in Nigeria.  I want it shipped via USPS express Air Mail for delivery only if you can assure me that it is in good working condition.  I am offering you $500 for the item and $100 for the shipping.

Me: The item is for local pickup only, cash only.

Scammer: Yea.  I understand.  Really but you don’t have anything to fear because I am going to make the payment upfront and you will get an alert to very my payment and PayPal works as cash of course.  When you receive the payment confirmation you can mail the item to my address.  Please.  I really need this from you okay…Thanks.

Another Scammer:

Alright.  I am John Henry and I work in the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America)  I live in Nacogdoches, TX and I would love to come and pick this up and pay in cash but I have been transferred out of town  to represent a firm outside the city and I would like to purchase this for my brother schooling overseas.  I am willing to offer you $100 extra for the shipping.  Do you have a PayPal account?

The mention of Nigeria in the first mention is a red flag since many internet scams originate in that country. I also did a search on the phone number and found a lot of people talking about how this person had ripped them off for considerable sums of money.  After discussing for a bit, I sent an invoice to the email address provided and waited.  It is a good practice to Google the phone number of someone wanting to purchase an item from you.  MrNumber.com allows people to post about the numbers in its database so you can find out if others have been ripped off from this phone number.  Here is a snippet from the results of the number I searched for on MrNumber.com.

BuyerScam01

The scammer then sent a fake PayPal email to me stating that I had received a payment as can be seen below.  First, the email address is not even close to a PayPal address.  Paypal confirmations are sent from service@PayPal.com.  Some scammers are more sophisticated and will use an address like service@paypal.com.somethingelse.com.  Since the email address is long, some email programs will only show the first part, so it looks like service@paypal.com.  This one was obviously a fake, but some scammers will produce an email that looks just like the original.

To check if you have received PayPal funds, log into your PayPal account from another computer (just in case the one you are using is infected with code from the scammer) and check your PayPal balance to see if the money has been deposited.  Note how they marked seller protection as eligible.  If you ask about it, they will tell you how you are protected and this is added to bolster their claim, but there is nothing to protect because you have not actually received money.  The address is in Nigeria.  This is always a red flag.  They marked the address as confirmed so that you will assume that you can trust the address since PayPal evidently trusts it.

BuyerScam02

I told the seller that the money was not in my account, so they tried another scheme.  They sent me a message stating that the money was deducted from the merchant’s account but that it would not be available in my account until the shipment was received and it instructed me to mail the MacBook immediately.  You can see the second email here.

BuyerScam03

The same email address was used in this email clearly indicating that it is a fake message because PayPal does not operate this way. PayPal deposits the money in the account, and it is up to the seller to then ship the item, but they do not hold it pending receipt from the buyer.  I had to laugh when I saw the exclamation points added to the subject line clearly indicating that this scammer is not familiar with business communication norms.  At this point, I figured there was nothing more I could learn about the scam, so I just told the buyer that it had been sold locally and was no longer available.

Conclusion:

So, what can we learn from all this?  Well, it pays to be a bit skeptical when buying things online.  Stick to local, cash only transactions when using Craigslist.  That is what it is meant for, and it is an excellent way to find a good deal.  Watch out for scams like those depicted in this article.  We’re all trying to find a good deal, but the old adage is still right.  “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”  If you have been the victim of fraud on Craigslist, contact your local police along with the links below.

Reporting Fraud:

Internet Crime Complaint Center (FBI, NW3C and BJA partnership)

FTC online complaint form

Ohio Attorney General Consumer Complaints