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Too Good To Be True: Craigslist Sale Items Could Be Stolen Merchandise

Transacting business on sites like Craigslist can be easy and even fun. But be careful about how you interact with potential buyers and sellers to avoid being scammed. Here's how to protect yourself.

Living in the computer age, online shopping has grown to unbelievable levels. And no wonder!  With just a few clicks of the mouse, you can find the exact item you want and have it delivered to your doorstep in just days.

The Internet also offers a number of very convenient ways to sell off some items cluttering up the attic or basement and raise a little extra cash in the process.  In specific, I’d like to focus here on the very popular Craigslist website.

No doubt, this is a great place to find good value and convenience for both the buyer and the seller. But consumers need to be aware that Craigslist is also a place where they can be easily scammed. Will you get what is actually promised in the ad? Does the seller really have the ability to sell the product, i.e. is it theirs? Or are they selling stolen merchandise?

If you transact business on Craigslist, you also need to ask yourself:  How should I interact with people who want to look at something I am selling on Craigslist?  Do I want people showing up at my house and knowing where I am and knowing intimate details of my life to purchase this used couch?

There’s an old rule of thumb that truly applies here.  If it appears to be too good of a deal, it probably is too good to be true.  If you see an ad for a $10,000 car that’s being sold for $5,000 in cash, that doesn’t quite seem right.

There are other red flag items, too. Heavy equipment, like a tractor that doesn’t necessarily come with a registration or title, may look completely legitimate on Craigslist. The seller may show up with a valid bill of sale and proof of repair work that’s been done on the equipment from out of state.  The item is delivered and then the buyer finds out the item is listed as being stolen.  The person who sold it had gone out of their way to forge documentation, in effect, to make it look like this piece of heavy equipment was theirs.  They had a bill of sale and a repair invoice but both of these documents were forged. You’ve just given the crook $10,000 and now you have a piece of equipment that you can’t keep because law enforcement knows about it and it will have to be returned to the proper owner. 

Another scenario I’ve seen on Craigslist and Ebay is a “one-of-a-kind” object being sold such as a rare baseball card, antique, or an original historical letter which turns out to be a forgery or a copy.  If this is the case, the customer has been duped and has paid for a worthless item.

Again, buyer beware.  Here are some Do’s and Don’ts when buying or selling on Craigslist:

  • Be smart about how you are meeting people you don’t know. Meet in a public place like a gas station or an office where there are other people around.
  • You don’t want people showing up at your house. 
  • Make the transaction practical. If you don’t want to bring the washer or dryer to the gas station, maybe you should think twice about selling that item on Craigslist. Remember, Craigslist is global. It’s not smart to invite just anybody to your home.
  • Cash, cash, cash! If you are the seller, do not accept checks, even cashier’s checks which can be falsified with bogus bank routing numbers. 
  • Before buying, especially on big ticket items, make sure you check the item out. Make sure you are getting what they say you are getting. Vehicles, boats , etc. 

Another scam we’ve seen goes like this. The buyer says,  “I’ll send you a check and I will over-pay for this because of all the time and expense of you having to deal with.  Ship it to me, sight unseen.”  That’s too good to be true.  The check will most likely be falsified.  You’ve just shipped your item for a worthless check.

Craigslist works and it can be a very good way to buy or sell an item. But make sure you have obvious proof that this person owns the item and can sell it to you appropriately. A snowmobile, Jet Ski or boat all require a registration card in this state. You get a card with the name of the person that’s registered.  It should match the person who is selling the item. 

Heavy equipment that is not registered can be a bit more difficult to verify. It’s also harder to determine whether the seller actually own the item. If you can’t some kind of state registration or state title with matching names, I’d advise staying away from that item. If someone is selling a large ticket item, make sure they have the authority to do so.

Doing your homework before the purchase can save you a major headache later!

About Attorney Mark Powers
Attorney Mark Powers is a partner at the criminal defense law firm of Huppertz & Powers, S.C. in Waukesha. Previously, Powers served as an Assistant District Attorney with the Waukesha County District Attorney's office as well as a municipal judge in North Prairie. He currently focuses in the area of criminal defense, and has handled many cases involving operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, domestic disputes, and drug offenses.

Powers attended Valparaiso University School of Law, where he received his Juris Doctorate. Prior to law school, Mark attended the University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse where he received his bachelor of science in Political Science.

For more information, please visit www.waukeshacriminalattorneys.com.

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Sunrocket August 16, 2012 at 05:05 PM
All good information. I have never sold anything on Craigslist that I could not physically take out of my house to another location. I also have someone else with me. Cash only Cash only, no exceptions. Other than that I have had good luck selling things on craigslist. Have never bought though. Honestly don't think that I would.
Mark Powers August 16, 2012 at 05:27 PM
Shelene, thank-you for the comments. This is great information for people to have-scams are becoming more frequent and sophisticated on a daily basis!
Mark Powers August 16, 2012 at 05:28 PM
Sunrocket, thank-you for taking the time to comment. I agree completely as to the "cash only" school of thought. Check schemes are incredibly sophisticated. I have spoken to a number of law enforcement personnel that have indicated that many forged checks are hard to detect until the routing numbers are checked!
Bren August 16, 2012 at 06:15 PM
I purchased one item from a Craigslist seller in Wauwatosa. We had several contacts via email. When it was time for the transaction I brought a companion, paid cash, and all was well. My purchase represented what I think Craigslist is best at--my seller was closing down his studio and the items I purchased cost a small fortune new. There was really no place for a Goodwill or thrift store to sell these untraditional items. They were too heavy to ship so eBay wasn't a good option either.
M C August 18, 2012 at 05:06 AM
If you use some sense and caution Craigslist can be a great option for both buying and selling. After several experiences buying and selling I've never had a problem. But you need to keep your antenna up for suspicious situations or offers, and yes, always use cash. eBay is safer, but also generally more expensive. Even on eBay one must take care, although there is a certain amount of protection built into the system. Craigslist you are on your own, but it also can have the best buys.

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