Catch Craigslist Scammers With This Digital Net

Jonathan Murray —  May 16, 2013

"Duane Casting the Net", by wormwould on FlickrWe recently blogged about a common Craigslist scam: Someone creates an ad listing your vacation rental, then confirms reservations – and collects deposits – from people who think they’re making a legitimate reservation.  All this can happen without your even knowing.

When the scammer disappears, your would-be guests are left ripped off and disappointed, and you’re left with what is, at best, an awkward situation.

I want to show you how to create a “digital net” that can help reduce the likelihood of your getting stuck in this awful situation.

Craigslist: Offsetting the Risk

I advertise my vacation rental on Craigslist a lot because it works really well in my area (Sonoma). I’m always on guard when I’m on Craigslist (whether I’m a buyer or a seller), but the benefits outweigh the risks for me, so I haven’t felt the need to avoid it.   I think I’m also prettygood at spotting the potential scams.

Regardless of how I feel about Craigslist, someone using my property info is a different beast because it can happen whether or not I use Craigslist and it can happen without my even knowing. So, while I can’t stop someone from doing this, I had some ideas on ways that I could alert myself when this was happening, and I wanted to test them out.

As someone who’s tech savvy, I decided to create a “digital net” to help protect myself – and unsuspecting travellers – from getting wrapped up in this con. As a starting point, I found a great reference about Craigslist alerts on Quora.

I then signed up to test a range of different alert tools:

* CL Alerts received a cease and desist letter from Craigslist while I was running my test, and they have since shut down.

Testing, Testing

“Charming 1662 sqft home for rent along beautiful tree-lined road in the coveted Sonoma East Side. Home is 2-3 blocks from the Sonoma Square and very walkable to shops, restaurants, bars, wine tastings, the town cinema, and more…”

Over the course of six weeks, I posted my listing five different times to see which tools would “catch” my posts. I focused the search on keywords that would be pretty unique to my property.  I decided to search for the phrase “charming 1662 sqft cottage.”  Each time I posted a new Craigslist ad, I sat back and waited for alerts to come in from these 7 different services.

The results?

  • Subscribing to the relevant Craigslist RSS feed worked 100% of the time
  • List-alert worked 100% of the time
  • My IFTTT alert worked 60% of the time
  • The rest failed.

CL Alerts has shut down. I contacted both Craigslist Buddy and Alertopedia to understand why my alerts didn’t trigger (and to confirm that they were still in business), but neither responded.

While I couldn’t get IFTTT to work 100% of the time, they seemed the most promising to me.  IFTTT had the most responsive customer service, they are venture funded, and they probably have the best prospect of long-term sustainability. They were also the only tool that offered text alerts, which I found helpful; it’s easy to lose track of email, and this isn’t an alert I would want to miss! IFTTT also helped me troubleshoot when the alert wasn’t working properly.

Limitations With My Craigslist Alerts Test

Despite the usefulness of these alerts, there are a few negatives that I should note.

  • These services may not be around for long. Craigslist has a habit of shutting down outside service that are build on top of Craigslist.  Since Craigslist has shut down at least one of the services I tested, I’m not sure about the lifespan of any of them. Even my faith in IFTTT could be misplaced; the service connects numerous web tools, so while the tool itself seems sustainable they could eliminate Craigslist notifications if needed.
  • This is a Craigslist-only solution. This specific test only monitors Craigslist; it won’t catch posts to other sites. However, other sites – like listing sites – can open the scammer up to other fraud checks if, for example, they require payment; these checks aren’t infallible, but they create more hoops to jump through. I’m still looking for the best way to catch fraudulent posts outside of Craigslist; in the interim, I’ve set up a Google Alert to try to cover myself elsewhere (I’ll report out on that test at a later date).
  • The scammer has to be pretty lazy. The nature of these alerts depends on the scammer copy-pasting your home info verbatim (or at least including the specific phrase that you’re monitoring); if they change the text, the triggers won’t work. However, from my experience, scammers often are lazy.  They copy-paste existing info and they’re not going to spend time re-writing it.

My Recommendations

I recommend that everyone set up both List-alert and IFTTT to monitor Craigslist, and create a Google Alert to potentially catch anything on other sites. While there are limitations, the tools are free and took just minutes to set up. That coverage is better than nothing!

Be sure to subscribe to our blog!  In a future post, I’ll review results from other tests I’m conducting outside of Craigslist using Google Alerts and searches for my home photo files.

photo credit: wormwould on Flickr

Jonathan Murray

Jonathan Murray

Posts

Before starting MyVR, he co-founded Lift Media (acquired), a lead generation company that worked with clients like American Express, Netflix, and Fandango. He started MyVR after being frustrated with setting up his own Sonoma cottage as a vacation rental. He studied engineering at Bucknell University and received his MBA from Stanford University.
MyVR Free Trial

4 responses to Catch Craigslist Scammers With This Digital Net

  1. Jonathan, thanks, great article. I appreciated the testing you did to find out what monitoring service actually worked. Trent

  2. Thanks, Trent!

  3. Once you’ve found them, then what? I use blogtrottr.com to monitor craigslist RSS feeds and it works great. The trouble I have is then getting rid of the scammer’s ad.

  4. Greg,
    Have you tried flagging the craigslist post and it didn’t work? Perhaps taking to your social network and asking some others to flag it, as well. I don’t know what the threshold is for getting a Craigslist posting removed, but I imagine the bar is not too high. I’d be happy to do a little more research here. Can you share any experiences and learnings you’ve had?

    If nothing else, I’d start to create posts in the section WARNING other users of the fraudulent listing and linking to it.

    HomeAway is starting to get more active on starting this. Check out the summary from their HomeAway Summit from earlier this month. Scroll down to the section titled “Sunday”: http://community.homeaway.com/docs/DOC-3429

    Anyone else had either challenges or success with removing CL posts?