… On ‘Craigs List’ and ‘eBay’

Wherever cash is changing hands there is someone waiting to take advantage.  Some scams are so transparent they are laughable, but others are harder to identify.  In this column, I’ll focus on two scams that are the most likely to cause problems for collectors.

eBay has done wonders in protecting its members by developing its message system.  All emails from eBay and from one member to another appear under “Messages” in “My eBay.”  I also have my messages delivered to my email address, but when in doubt I check “My eBay.”  If the message also appears there I know it’s legitimate.  If not, I know someone is trying to pull a scam.

There is a scam that slips by eBay’s efforts to protect its members because a legitimate eBay member initiates it.  The scam is often not even recognized as a scam because it appears to be a legitimate business offer.  In fact, it is a legitimate business offer, but it is intended to take advantage of the seller.

When I was hit by this scam, I didn’t even realize it was a scam.  What happened was this; I had a circa 1950 motion lamp up for bids on eBay.  It featured a steam engine that billowed smoke then the light bulb produced enough heat to turn the inner cylinder.  I’ve bought, sold, and collected a lot of stuff in my years of collecting, but I didn’t realize that I had a valuable piece.  Unlike earlier motion lamps, the outer shade of this one wasn’t made of glass.  It was made of plastic.  I was so unimpressed by the lamp I almost didn’t bother to list it on eBay.  I went ahead and listed the lamp, hoping I could get a little something out of it.  A few bids were placed on the lamp, but as with most eBay auctions, the early bids weren’t impressive.  Then, I was hit with the scam…

I received an email from an eBay member telling me how much she liked the lamp and how she wanted to buy it as a birthday present for herself.  She didn’t want to wait until the end of the auction.  She offered me $50 for the lamp if I would sell it to her off eBay.  A request to sell an item off eBay is a red flag, but not necessarily a scam.  I was still unaware I was the victim of a scam.  I might have sold the lamp to her if there had not already been bids on the lamp.  After all, $50 was far more than I expected to get for the piece.  I emailed her back and told her I was sorry, but I couldn’t sell her the lamp because bidders had already placed bids on it.  I never heard from her again.  I refused to sell off eBay not because I thought I was being scammed, but because cancelling the auction would not have been fair to those who had already placed bids.  As the auction drew to a close, the bids on my lamp grew higher.  I was amazed when the bids exceeded $100.  In the final seconds, the bids shot up and the lamp sold for $325.  I was amazed.  I would have sold the lamp at a flea market for $10 and been happy with the price!

It was not until after the lamp sold that I realized someone had tried to scam me.  The eBay member who tried to get me to sell the lamp off eBay likely knew the lamp was a valuable piece.  By making an offer early, she attempted to get the lamp for much less than it was worth.  Her attempt wasn’t actually illegal, but I would have missed out on $275 of profit if I had taken the bait.  Of course, there is the possibility that it wasn’t a scam and that she just really wanted the lamp for her birthday, but most likely it was indeed a scam.  I’ve had similar offers since, not many, but a few.  My experience with the lamp educated me and allowed me to recognize such scams.  Now that you’ve read about my experience, you can recognize them too!

Craigslist warns sellers that “Most cashier’s checks and money orders offered to craigslist sellers are COUNTERFEIT – cashing them can lead to financial ruin” and “Requests that you wire money abroad via Western Union or moneygram for any reason are SCAMS.”  Craigslist even includes a link on their very own scams page.  Be sure to check out this link even if you don’t buy or sell on Craigslist because it’s filled with useful information and links.  Even with the warnings, it’s easy to be taken in.

I recently offered a few things for sale on Craigslist.  One of the emails I received stated that the sender would take my item, but would pay me by cashier’s check.  The email requested my name and address and said that someone would be picking up the piece.  The email seemed legitimate.  If I had provided my name and address a cashier’s check would probably have shown up, but it would have been fake.  If the check had made it past the scrutiny of the bank, I would have been paying a lot of fees when it was later discovered that the check was counterfeit.  Someone would have shown up to collect the piece and I would have been out the piece I was selling, plus all the bank fees!  I didn’t respond to the email and never heard from the individual again.

A lower-level craigslist scam isn’t out to steal your money or merchandise, but is an attempt to get your email for spam purposes.  It’s easy to fall for this one because it seems so innocent.  It works like this: the seller receives an email that simply asks “Is the piece still available?”  If the seller answers nothing too bad will happen, but they will start receiving spam.  This scam works so well because a potential buyer might send such a message. Most emails that ask this question are attempts to get your email address, so beware!  I received one while I was writing this column that asked, “Did it still available?” in exactly those words, which is a humorous tipoff that at least some of the scams are coming from outside the U.S. and are initiated by those without a firm grasp of English.

When posting an item for sale on Craigslist, you can protect yourself from this scam by requesting that potential buyers contact you with a specific phrase in the subject-line or include something in the email that lets you know they are local.  It can be a mention of the weather, a local sports event, or whatever.  You can also do what I do, delete any email that only asks if a piece is still available.

Scams can cost one a lot of money or they can be a mere annoyance.  Either way, they aren’t difficult to avoid with a little effort and a little knowledge.  Both eBay and Craigslist offer information and tools to avoid scams.  Use them!