I recently got a great deal on a baby grand piano, something I’ve always wanted. To make room and help pay for it, I put my spinet (known in the trade as a little brown piano) up for sale, advertising it on Craigslist. The next day, I got a note from one Sandra Jones, saying she was interested and hoped it would be available in the next 72 hours. I said it was, and invited her to come by and take a test look.
She responded quickly, and I realized right away she must be married to that prince, because here’s what she said, complete with eccentric capitalization:
“Presently, i am out of town with my UNICEF TEAM to raise funds for the Children Living with Malaria and i won’t be able to come for the inspection due to the nature of my work. Moreover, I would have loved to call but our satellite server has been down in recent days which restricts our calls. I will be paying you through PayPal as it is the only Medium at which i can send Payment at the Moment.”
She then asked me to send her my PayPal information and home address. Sound familiar? Of course it does. Internet scammers invariably bait a hook with a tempting deal or offer, and then reel the victim in when they bite and send information that grants the scammers access to a financial account. What’s more, the scammer often positions herself as a very important person, doing very important work, who is too busy and too far away to meet you in person.
What surprised me about this one, though, is that it wasn’t random; someone actually saw my Craigslist post and responded to it. Are there thousands of low-paid, apprentice scammers holed up in little rooms somewhere scrolling through Craigslist hunting for victims? However it was set up, the scam was just one of thousands that hit Craigslist users every day. Scams that target buyers and sellers on Craigslist are so common, the company has a page filled with tips on how to avoid them.
Nigerian Prince scams are dead obvious, but do a quick search on “Craigslist scams” and you find some that are far more subtle. There are reports of people posing as rental agents (online), and taking deposits for apartments that aren’t for rent, or at least not for rent by them. And in hot rental markets like the one here in San Francisco, prospective tenants can be so desperate to find a place that they’ll write a check without even seeing the place in person.
Last year, Romanian and U.S. authorities arrested more than 100 people involved in eBay or Craigslist scams. Romanians pretending to be U.S. citizens had advertised the fake sale of expensive items on the online marketplaces and required wire transfers before delivery. The scams cost Americans more than $100 million, according to the Department of Justice.
Maybe that number is exaggerated, but Craigslist scams really do exist, which is kind of a shame. Craigslist offers regular folks a free marketplace to buy and sell goods and services in their own community. But like everything else on the Internet, bad actors are a fact of life, and if you’re not skeptical you’re setting yourself up to be a victim.
As to “Sandra Jones,” I suppose she’s moved on to the next potential victim. I never answered her last email, figuring the fun of seeing how the scam unfolded would have been outweighed by the storm of spam that would likely have followed. My piano? Still for sale.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.