Top 7 Craigslist scams (and how to avoid them)

Top 7 Craigslist scams (and how to avoid them)

Let’s face it, the internet is a lot like the Wild West. Online scams are growing much more common, lurking around every corner of the web. Thankfully Swappa is doing our part by building a safer marketplace for people to buy and sell used tech.

So what happens when scammers can’t find a home on Swappa? They simply move onto less safe sites, targeting places like Craigslist where they have a higher chance at success. In fact, we’ve already seen instances of scammers impersonating Swappa staff in order to gain trust of unknowing buyers. With Craigslist, virtually anything goes. This can make it difficult for buyers searching for deals to know which posts are legit. So how can you avoid getting scammed on Craigslist?

⚠️ Craigslist is only for in-person meetups ⚠️

First and foremost, Craigslist should only be used for face-to-face meetups. (Looking to have something shipped to your door? Swappa can help with that.) By sticking to this one rule, you can avoid most Craigslist scams online. Although meeting with strangers online may not sound like a safe way to do business, we’ve put together a few safety precautions to help keep you protected.

Tips for face-to-face meetups:

  • Always meet in public places like Starbucks, shopping center, or restaurant.
  • Always tell a friend/family member where you’re going
  • Bring a friend if possible (especially with high-value items)
  • Always bring your cellphone
  • Never invite strangers into your home.
  • If it doesn’t feel right, cancel the meetup

For more on safer meetups, check out our Swappa Local blog post. There you’ll find more information on Swappa Local and how our hand-picked “swap spots” work to keep you safe when conducting face-to-face transactions.

Although scammers have lots of tricks up their sleeves, you can more easily spot fake Craigslist ads by keeping an eye out for common red flags. These are telltale signs that a Craigslist post is potentially bogus.

Craigslist red flags 🚩

  • Poor spelling/grammar
  • Generic stock product photos
  • Same ad posted in multiple cities
  • Post by someone living outside the country

While you should certainly keep an eye out for Craigslist ads displaying any of the above red flags, it shouldn’t automatically disqualify them. Our advice is to simply proceed with caution and use your best judgement, especially when dealing with higher risk items that have a higher likelihood of fraud.

Although Craigslist can be useful in finding deals on furniture or home goods, here are some high-risk items you should generally try avoid or proceed with even more caution:

Types of Craigslist ads with high scam risk:

  • Used phones
  • Rentals (home and apartment)
  • Autos (buying and selling)
  • Tickets
  • Jobs

Some Craigslist scams are more convincing than others, but by using the tips in this post, we can help expose them before these thieves ever get their hands on your wallet. Continue reading for a list of common Craigslist scams and the ways Swappa helps fight fraud before it ever reaches our own marketplace.

Most common Craigslist scams

1. Seller creates fake Craigslist ad using stolen photos

The scam:

Nearly every Craigslist scam involves a fake ad used to entice eager buyers. Whether it’s an automobile, the latest iPhone, or any other high-priced item, Craigslist scammers will steal photos from legitimate listings (or anywhere else online) for use in creating fake listings to use as bait. Because Craigslist does nothing to vet user ads, it’s not something that’s about to stop anytime soon.

The solution:

It’s difficult to tell if a Craigslist seller’s photos are legit. While you could try a reverse image search to see if the photos were posted elsewhere online, it’s not 100% accurate. Thankfully, Swappa requires all sellers to upload verification photos that are vetted by actual human staff, stopping the vast majority of scammers dead in their tracks. This allows buyers to trust listings in our marketplace, a peace of mind you won’t find on Craigslist.

2. Craigslist seller posts a deal that’s too good to be true

The scam:

Scammers know the best way to get a bite is by targeting bargain hungry shoppers. A crazy good deal can cloud the judgement of even the most rational shopper, but don’t be fooled. If something looks too good to be true — it usually is.

Extremely discounted prices are almost always accompanied by a long email and sob story. While details may vary, the seller will usually request that you send a deposit or pay for shipping on larger items like an automobile. Don’t be fooled and always come prepared.

The solution:

Before you go deal hunting, you should always know the current market value of the item you’re shopping for. This will help you spot a good deal from an obvious Craigslist scam. While this information can be difficult to gather on your own, Swappa provides our users with all sorts of pricing information. Everything from prices on specific carrier phones, storage sizes, or even colors. This helps sellers know where to price their item, and buyers can know when they’re getting a great deal.

3. Craigslist seller claims they’re out of state/country

The scam:

Seller posts a great deal — typically one that’s almost too good to be true (see #2) and once you contact them, they send you a huge story about how their spouse died or they’ve been deployed to another country and need to sell the item ASAP. All they need from you is to send payment, usually to help cover shipping or to place a deposit on a normally high-priced item like the latest smartphone. Once you send the money, they’ll make off like a bandit, never to be heard from again.

The solution:

As we discussed early on in this post, any and all Craigslist deals should always be made face-to-face. That means you should never deal with someone claiming they’re “out of state” or even worse, in another country. This is always a dead giveaway that the Craigslist ad is a scam.

With Swappa, sellers shipping items across the country is a perfectly safe and normal practice. Listings in our marketplace are verified, so you don’t have to worry about scammers running amok. With the option for both face-to-face meetups or online shipping, Swappa is both fast and convenient.

4. Craigslist seller sends a fake PayPal email

The scam:

Some of the most popular Craigslist scams involve the use of PayPal. This isn’t because of any flaw with the payment service, but merely because it’s a name most people are familiar with and trust. PayPal scams typically involve a buyer promising to send PayPal payment (and never following through), but illegitimate sellers can also take advantage. They do this by sending a fake PayPal email, asking the buyer to sign into their PayPal account in order to send payment or track the non-existent item. The email typically links to a fake PayPal site and if they buyer isn’t paying attention to the URL, they can find themselves logging into the fake site handing over their login credentials without even knowing it.

The solution:

Once again, the number one rule for using Craigslist is to never send payment online for any good or service. Dealing with Craigslist sellers in person should nip this scam right in the bud. Of course, PayPal is a perfectly safe way to pay for things online and it’s the primary way we process payments in the Swappa marketplace. This is because of PayPal’s extensive buyer protections. When combined with listing and device verification, it’s a great way to shop for devices on Swappa while ensuring your money is always safe.

5. Seller recommends a fake escrow company

The scam:

It’s not always easy to con people out of their money. Most buyers know they probably shouldn’t directly transfer money to someone online they’ve never met. Scammers know this, so they set up a fake escrow service that sort of acts as a proxy. In order to gain trust of the buyer, the seller will recommend use of an escrow company (or even a fake escrow company posing as a legitimate one) as a way to protect the buyer. But this is an elaborate con job, with both parties — the seller and escrow company — working together to scam the buyer out of their money.

The solution:

Same rule as all the others applies here. Never, under any circumstances, send money to someone you’ve only met online. No matter how enticing the deal, how sad the sob story, or how safe a seller makes it sound — if the buyer refuses to meet face-to-face, then the deal is off.

When using Swappa Local, we make sure our users know that cash payment is the preferred method of payment for in-person meetups. When shipping an item, sellers are only allowed to accept PayPal as payment thanks to their extensive buyer protections.

6. Fake Craigslist guarantee or purchase protection

The scam:

Craigslist is very much a “use at your own risk” kind of service. The website only hosts the content on their site, offering no support when it comes to any of the listings. Not everyone knows this and it’s why scammers will send fake “Craigslist Purchase Protection” or some kind of guarantee that Craigslist does not actually offer. It’s simply a way for scammers to gain the trust of buyers so they’ll be more inclined to make risky purchases.

The solution:

Knowing this scam exists — and that Craigslist offers no such guarantee — is the best defense. Should you come across an email like this, immediately discard and go on your way. On Swappa, our online transactions are protected by PayPal, meaning you get what you paid for or your money back. For in-person meetups (something scammers generally want to avoid), we recommend using cash for the exchange, but only after the item in question has been thoroughly inspected and up to snuff.

7. Scammer sells a phone that is still being financed

The scam:

Smartphones are a high-demand item on Craigslist. Whether it’s the latest iPhone or Galaxy, phones have a past that follows them. So even if you meetup with someone to test a phone that works as it should — that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods yet. A large number of people finance their phones, opting instead for monthly payments instead of paying the full price upfront. This puts the buyer in a precarious situation should the original owner ever stop making payments on the phone. If this happens, the carrier will blocklist the device and it can no longer receive cell service on just about any carrier in the US. Why is this dangerous? This can happen a few days — or even weeks — after you’ve been happily enjoying the phone without issue.

The solution:

So what can you do to avoid buying a financed phone on Craigslist? It might be worth asking for the IMEI (device’s unique serial number) before purchasing, then checking with the carrier yourself to see if it’s fully unlocked and ready for sale (paid off), or still being financed. There’s no guarantee the seller will comply, but it’s certainly worth a shot.

This is why Swappa is the safer choice for buying a used phone online. On Swappa, we not only check a device’s electronic serial number to make sure it hasn’t been reported lost or stolen, but we also go the extra mile to check that the device is ready for activation. Unlike Craigslist, Swappa allows you to trust the tech you buy.

So what have we learned here today? Let’s recap…

How to avoid Craigslist scams cheat sheet

  • Never send payment to anyone you haven’t met in person.
  • Only deal locally with people you’ve met in person.
  • Avoid any Craigslist offer that involves shipping.
  • Never wire funds or use electronic payments without having the product in your possession.
  • Don’t accept cashier/certified checks or money orders.
  • There’s no such thing as a third party “guarantee.”
  • Never provide anyone your personal or financial information (bank account, social security, PayPal, etc.).
  • Amazing “deals” usually don’t actually exist.


Of course, the safest way to buy or sell your used tech online is by sticking to the Swappa marketplace. Swappa users can rest easy knowing the listings in our marketplace have been screened and our support team is always available 365 days a year to answer any questions, concerns, or lend a helping hand.

There are lots of other services out there for buying and selling used tech, but none are as safe and reliable as Swappa. So don’t risk your hard-earned money buying a sketchy phone on Craigslist. With Swappa, you can trust the tech you buy. Get started buying or selling by hitting the button below.


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