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How to spot a craigslist car scam

Updated on May 23, 2013


It can be the best treasure in the world, or a virtual snake pit depending on how you look at it (and whether or not you like snakes). For the most part, craigslist is a positive way to get the word out about an item you have for sale and it's a good way to find what you're looking to purchase too.

That being said, there are few things considered sacred to scammers and con artists, which is why it's always good to stay on guard during any transactions. You wouldn't knowingly trust a stranger you just meet downtown with your money or your possessions, and people on craigslist shouldn't be given any more privileges than that.

Below you will find some descriptions for common scams played out by con artists looking to rip you off for a vehicle you have for sale, plus some tips for avoiding getting caught in any of these scams.

Vehicle Shipping Scams

This is currently one of the most common scams on craigslist, though thankfully, they are just as easy to spot as any other, if you know what to look for.

In this scam, the buyer will usually try to contact you through text message or email and will often refuse to talk to you over the phone. After the ice is broken, they'll dive right into how they will send you a check in the mail, through paypal or with a personal vehicle transporter. All you have to do... is take their money and then be there when the shipper comes to pick up the vehicle, or so they will tell you.

Typically, there are only one of several outcomes if they succeed in tricking a buyer into this agreement:

  • They have someone come and pick up the vehicle with a check in their hands that will never cash.
  • They tell you that they've wired you the money while their shipper picks up the vehicle, but the money never makes it to you.
  • They actually send you money through wire transfer to your bank or through paypal, and they file a dispute and get their money back, leaving you with the bill and no car.

Most people are astute enough to follow their intuition when it comes to scams like these, but these scammers have become awfully good at what they do, especially since paypal came into existence. They often use the plight of an ailing family member, a graduating sibling or someone else they love who needs your vehicle and then they will add to the drama by telling you they are overseas as a soldier or in an equally challenging situation.

It used to be that scammers pre-programmed a bot to take care of this, though that didn't go very far, especially if you asked any unexpected questions. Because that didn't work out very well, they went to live con artists who were much better at winning over a person and convincing them of the authenticity of the transaction.

If you find yourself in a situation where you suspect someone is trying to scam you this way, the best way to find out (aside from just ignoring anyone who asks you to ship your vehicle), is to ask them to send you an email or certified letter that includes their legal name, current residence, place of employment and at least 2 phone numbers where the buyer in question can be reached. Ask them also to provide you with two references of people who are willing to vouch for them. At the end of that information, require them to give you a statement clearly saying that they would be purchasing your vehicle "as is" and that no refunds will be issued once the money has entered your possession. In the statement, they must also agree not to file any disputes with paypal or any banks and not to cancel the transaction for any reason.

9 times out of 10, they will kindly disappear and bother you no more. Though there are a few who might still try to string you along if they think you'll give them you're paypal email or other sensitive information. Make sure they know that you absolutely will not give them your paypal email or any other sensitive information until you have their information and signed statement (either electronically or by certified letter), and that you will not release the vehicle to them until after the 45 day statute of limitations on paypal refunds and disputes. If they are willing to take that sort of risk, they are CLEARLY a scammer.

If on the other hand they say, "I'd rather just fly in, meet you at the dmv and give you cash." Then you'll have a deal. Though it's few and far between when you'll actually run into someone in another state that wants to have a vehicle shipped to them for money up front. In most cases, if a buyer sees a vehicle out of their area that the want, they'll either come and get it or have a trusted friend buy it from you first.

And if you ask any lawyer or banker, it's simply better not to risk it in the first place. Your best bet is simply to maintain a policy of excepting nothing other than cold hard "in person" cash for your car or truck.

This is why so many craigslist ads are often followed by:


Check Fraud

Having a mother who works in the banking industry, really opened my eyes to many of the ways a person might try to scam you out of your money (or worse). When it comes to scammers on craigslist, the second most common and most used scam is to get you to accept a cashiers check, personal check or money order.

It used to be a common place for a buyer to use a cashiers check or money order in order to protect themselves from fraud, but too many people have used it for nefarious purposes, for it to be considered safe for any seller to accept. This is widely the reason why most tired craigslist sellers write into their ads "CASH ONLY".

The way this scam works, is that the buyer gets you to accept a check in one form or another, takes your vehicle and then they wait a few days for you to place the check into your bank account. Once they are confident you've done so, they promptly cancel the check or get a refund for the money order, which then pulls the money from your account and leaves you stuck with the bill, which is often equal to the amount of the check or money order plus the NSF fee's.

If you feel you have found yourself an honest check writer, then tell them you will gladly meet them at THEIR bank where they can withdraw the money and you can sign the vehicle over to them. If this person is not a scammer and they really want your car, they will have no problem with this and you will get clear cash for your efforts. If they are a con artist, they'll either stop all communications with you or they will do everything they can to convince you of their honesty and why they cannot have you meet them at their bank to get the cash.


This one is the least used these days because they are easy to spot and most emails have efficient spam filters that capture them before they ever get to you. In these scams, a potential buyer will attempt to get you to click on a link they have sent to you in an email.

Regardless of what reason they ask you to click on the link, don't take the risk! Put that email in your spam folder ASAP and then clear your spam folder. The chances that they were genuinely trying to purchase your car, are slim to none and if you click that link you could risk identity fraud or worse.

Have you experienced any of these scams?

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    • Ceres Schwarz profile image

      Ceres Schwarz 4 years ago

      This is a very helpful hub on how to spot a Craigslist car scam. It is very important to keep our eyes open and to be very careful so as to avoid these scams. By learning about the different car scams possible, people have a better idea on what they should avoid in order to prevent themselves from being scammed.

    • Alexander Mark profile image

      Alexander Silvius 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      I didn't realize there was a safe way to do a shipping transaction, interesting but not worth the effort! I actually wrote a hub about one experience and I was able to string the scammer along for a few emails. Some say that making that person waste their time is fighting the battle, but I have decided since then it is not worth MY time. I have avoided scammers and have had decent success buying and selling vehicles on CL. It is a great place as long as you keep your eyes peeled.