Craigslist fraud: when does it end?

BOSTON — If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. If only that saying would have crossed my mind before I joined the thousands of people who have experienced internet fraud, in my case through Craigslist.

Being a college student trying to find a decent job, and with the nearing of Thanksgiving break, I responded to a mystery shopper ad in the part-time job section of Craigslist.org. My “evaluation” task was to provide my fake boss with information about the work ethic at the 64 Kneeland St. Western Union location in Chinatown and make a money transfer to whom I believed was a member of the mystery shopper organization (which I never got an actual name for—red flag #1). I always thought I would identify a scam if I saw one on Craigslist, but like so many others, I was fooled by the elaborateness of these schemes.

In my “application e-mail” to a man by the name of Gary Davies, I had to express my particular interest in participating and fill out my contact information so that a $2850 check could be sent to my apartment. Gary even asked me about my availability, so I would assume that I was participating in a legitimate job that would possibly lead to more.

My “commission” for taking an hour out of my day to rate the service at the Chinatown Western Union was $200, which I was to deduct once I cashed the check that was Fed-Exed to me (red flag #2). The check, which was made out to me, looked real and I actually cashed it at the Bank of America on Hanover Street. Since the check actually was able to be cashed, I happily deposited my $200 commission and took the remaining $2650 in cash to Western Union.

When I arrived at Western Union, I answered the requested information about the service there, even writing my notes discreetly because I thought the job was real. I was instructed to send the money to a woman in Mexico involved in the no-name mystery shop company who would receive the money and do a similar procedure (red flag #3). I completed the transaction and made my way home to E-mail Gary confidential information on the receipt, including the MTCN number which allows anyone who has it to access the money (red flag #4).

While walking home, something happened that saved me from being $2850 in debt: my mother called me. When I told her what I had just done, she immediately said (a nicer word than screamed) that I was scammed and needed to cancel the money immediately. Luckily, I opted for the next-day service and had the chance to go back and cancel the transaction. So, I saved myself from debt and earned $2850, which thankfully will all disappear from my account this week.

The next morning I went to the bank to speak to a representative, and I found that I was not alone; I was actually one of many. I spoke to two representatives (who wish to remain anonymous), who told me that internet fraud on websites like Craigslist is extremely common and can fool victims and bankers alike. One representative, who cashed my check and remembered me from the day before, was shocked the check was fake but thankful it was detected.

“That check looked like a valid check like so many other ones I see during the day,” the representative said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this before and I’m just thankful this got figured out before anything worse happened.”

If the money had been sent to Mexico, I would have been responsible to pay back the $2850 because the check will bounce any day now. Similar incidents frequently happen to Craigslist users who are sent a fake check (to perform a job or sell something) and expected to deduct their cash amount before sending the remainder through money orders or Western Union.

Craigslist.org does not deal with sales or the sending of money because it only serves as the forum for posts. The site does not monitor the postings because it is community based, meaning that users are the ones who must remove or “flag” suspicious and fraud postings. However, Craigslist does have a page on the site to help users avoid being the victim of internet scams.

Scams on Web sites such as Craigslist can range from being tricked into wiring money from a fake check to sending a security deposit for a non-existent apartment. Fake checks are constantly being cashed by banks, leaving unknowing victims susceptible to major financial problems and criminal prosecution.

“Banks have been seeing a great deal of this lately, and a lot of the times somebody brings in a fake check, we’ll have no idea that it’s fake,” another bank representative said. “The people who commit these crimes know exactly what they’re doing, and they’re good at it. It’s important to never trust anything on the internet from an unknown source.”

There are several ways to identify internet fraud, and Craigslist provides information that is useful to anyone who gets caught up in a suspicious transaction. The most important tip in avoiding Craigslist fraud is to deal locally with people you can meet in person. The site advises users to never do business with people from foreign nations, most notably Nigeria and Western European countries.

Another way to avoid scams is to never wire money via Western Union, a money order, cashier’s check, or shipping because once the money is out of your possession it is gone forever in most cases. Users should never trust e-mails from unknown businesses or buyers no matter how positive and reassuring the message might be.

Internet fraud on Web sites like Craigslist is growing rapidly and many people are suffering the consequences. Craigslist says the site is in the process of finding a way to prevent scams, although solutions have yet to come. Until something is done to forever eliminate internet scams, people must exercise caution to avoid these irreversible situations. For more information on Craigslist fraud, visit www.craigslist.org/about/scams.

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