From auction sites to reseller and classified ad websites like Craigslist or Ebay, consumers can find anything from job offers, to homes to rent or purchase, and to an almost endless variety of household goods, automobiles, and recreational items. These web sites are used by millions of people as an affordable alternative to purchasing new items and offer simple and efficient ways to get in touch with those selling new and used goods and services.
When used honestly, these sites can make day-to-day transactions simple and affordable. However, because of their popularity, scammers see these sites as an opportunity to target unsuspecting victims, both buyers and sellers. Some common scams using these web sites include:
- Property rental scams – scammers will post a fake advertisement (or even hijack an existing legitimate add with their own contact information) for a home or apartment rental at an attractive low monthly price. Consumers responding to the ad may be required to fill out an application containing lots of personal and financial information and will be asked to wire transfer first and last month’s rent and a damage deposit. Of course, the listing is fake, your money is lost, and your identity might be compromised.
- Fake checks, cashier’s checks, and money orders – you receive a check or a money order for a product you are selling so you ship it to the buyer. Except the check or money order turns out to be counterfeit and you have basically given away your product to a crook.
- Overpayment scams – say you are renting your property or selling some item online for $500. A buyer agrees to rent the property or buy your item sight unseen, but sends a check for $2,000. He then immediately contacts you and with the claim that the overpayment was either a mistake or that it was intended to cover shipping expenses that the buyer has arranged through some third party. You are asked to return the overpaid amount or to send the overpayment to that third party to cover shipping. Of course, the entire payment was made with a counterfeit check and you have now overdrawn your bank account.
- Fake tickets – people flock to these sites hoping to find tickets to some sold-out concert or sporting event, even airline tickets. Crooks know it too. You send in a payment to collect the tickets before anyone else can scoop them up, wait for the tickets to arrive in the mail … and wait … and wait … The tickets never arrive, or the tickets you do receive are counterfeit or have already been cancelled.
- Escrow scams – knowing that many consumers are getting wise to some of these scams, the crooks may suggest that you use an escrow or payment service “for your own protection.” Except, they send you a link to their preferred escrow service, where you promptly deposit your payment believing that your money is safe until you actually receive the product you think you have purchased. Unfortunately, it is easy for the crooks to set up very professional looking escrow websites – even mimicking legitimate sites – and simply steal your money.
To keep you safe and prevent any mishaps in your next online auction or classified advertisement purchase, consider following some of these simple steps:
- Be wary of poorly written correspondence or advertisements that contain misspellings, improper use of language, or unusual formatting.
- Stay away from deeply discounted offers or advertisements where the advertisements simply seem too good to be true. If it seems too good to be true, it likely is.
- Do NOT accept any payment by check or money order for an amount in excess of the agreed-upon purchase or rental price.
- Do NOT ship any product paid for with a check or money order until you can verify whether the check or money order is legitimate.
- Do NOT click on links embedded in listings or in emails sent by a prospective buyer/seller directing you to a “preferred” escrow or payment service. Do you own independent research before agreeing to use any of these services.
- Whenever possible, conduct business locally as most instances of online fraud occurs remotely and outside of your immediate location.
- Before agreeing to purchase or rent a home through an online classified ad, check local property records to verify the actual ownership of the advertised property. Many jurisdictions allow online searches of property and tax assessment records.
- Do your research - Conduct your own research into the listing; including the name, addresses, email, telephone number, and other associated information gathered from the posting such as product models and serial numbers. If this information is not immediately available, ask the seller to send you photo confirmation.
- Avoid any listing that requires you to act immediately or pressures you to act urgently.
- Do not agree to send payments via gift cards, wire transfers, or other money transmittal services, such as Western Union or MoneyGram.
- Never provide your personal identifying information, including your social security number and banking information to an unknown individual or entity, especially to those contacts which are made solely through the Internet or mail.
- Whenever possible, always use a reputable company by checking with the Better Business Bureau or other rating agencies.
If you plan to inspect or pick up a purchased item from the seller’s personal residence or business, or if you are thinking about allowing a prospective purchaser into your home, there are some extra precautions you should take:
- If the item you are selling is small, try and meet in a well-traveled public place or, even better, a police station and not in your home.
- Always bring a friend; never go to a face-to-face transaction alone.
- Make sure to tell someone where you’ll be, what time you expect to return, and any information you may have relating to the person you are meeting.
- Always bring your cell phone.
- Use your best judgement, if the transaction sounds suspicious, don’t go!
- Before making your purchase, always make sure to have proper inspections done on merchandise, especially with more expensive items such as an automobile, motorcycle, or watercraft.
- Pay only in cash; you don’t want a stranger to have any of your personal information.
If you believe you have been victimized by an online scam or wish to report suspicious activity, please file a report here.