The Craigslist Email Scam: What It Is and How to Protect Yourself

Not all email messages from Craigslist users can be trusted

Many Craigslist users communicate with each other via email. Although the site implements two-way email relay by providing each user with an anonymous email address to help protect them from unwanted or abusive emails, scammers have figured out all sorts of different ways around it.

What Is the Craigslist Email Scam?

Craigslist email scams come in many shapes and forms, but in general, a Craigslist email scammer is known to do at least one of the following things:

  • Ask for your real email address for any reason at all.
  • Insist on communicating by email only (using either your Craigslist email or your real email).
  • Send you fake purchase protection emails that appear to be from Craigslist itself.
A conceptual image of the Craiglist email scam.
Lifewire / Theresa Chiechi

How Does the Craigslist Email Scam Work?

The Craigslist email scam works in several different ways, depending on whether the scammer is trying to obtain personal information, money, or valuable items. It also depends on whether the scammer is a buyer or a seller.

Asking for Your Real Email Address

Scammers might ask you for your real email address for any of the following reasons:

  • The scammer claims they want to send payment via PayPal. Scammers posing as buyers might try to talk you into accepting online payments, such as those via PayPal. Once you give your PayPal email address to the scammer, however, they can easily send you a fake PayPal confirmation email to make you think that they paid when they really didn't.
  • The scammer claims they use a third-party to securely handle the payment. Similar to the PayPal scenario above, a scammer (posing as either a buyer or a seller) might ask for your real address so that they can send a fake email that appears to come from an official third party. These types of emails typically are cleverly designed to look like they offer a guarantee on your transaction, certify the seller, or inform you that the payment will be securely handled by the third party.
  • The scammer intends to send you multiple scam and spam messages. A scammer who asks for your real email address might be creating a list of victims they're targeting to hack their personal information. They could be planning to send you phishing scams, money or lottery scams, survey scams or even social network scams.

Insisting on Communicating Entirely by Email

Scammers might insist on talking exclusively by email for any of the following reasons:

  • The scammer can't speak to you by phone or meet up in person. Many Craigslist scammers operate overseas and don't speak English as their first language, which is why they prefer to do everything via email. If they're posing as a seller, they almost definitely don't have the item you're trying to buy and are just trying to get your money.
  • The scammer is following a script and has an elaborate personal story to share. Scammers use scripts so that they can scam multiple people. If they're posing as a buyer, they might refer to "the item" instead of saying what the item actually is. Since English is typically not most scammers' first language and they operate around the world, it's very common for them to misspell words or use improper grammar. And finally, to back up why they can't meet up or need payment immediately, they'll describe in detail all the problems they're currently facing/have faced in order to get you to sympathize with them.
  • The scammer is looking to pressure you to make a payment, or wants to send a cashier's check. Using their elaborate story, the scammer who's posing as a seller might ask you to make a deposit via a third party such as PayPal, Western Union, an escrow service, or something else. They might even convince you to make multiple payments over a period of time, looking to extract as much money from you as possible before you realize you're not getting what you're paying for. On the other hand, the scammer who's posing as a buyer might offer to send a cashier's check, which will likely be discovered as fraudulent days or weeks later.

Beware of anyone who tells you they're in the military. This is a strong sign of a scam.

Sending Fake Purchase Protection Emails

Scammers have been known to send protection plan emails that appear to be from Craigslist. Of course, Craigslist doesn't back any transactions that occur through its site, so any emails you receive claiming to verify or protect your purchases via Craigslist are completely fake.

Scammers have also been known to take advantage of eBay's protection program, so if anyone you're doing business with on Craigslist mentions anything about eBay, take it as a big sign of a serious scam.

How Do the Craigslist Email Scammers Find Victims?

Scammers posing as buyers typically look for Craigslist ads that include valuable items. They might also be more attracted to ads that include real email addresses in the description.

Scammers posing as sellers will take virtually any potential buyer who contacts them. The more unaware or less cautious they are, the more likely they'll hand over their real email address if the scammer asks for it.

How Do I Avoid Getting Involved In This Scam?

The most important thing you can do to avoid getting involved in the Craigslist email scam is to never give away your real email address to anyone you're speaking to from Craigslist.

A screenshot of Gmail.com.

Secondly, if you see any of the scam signs discussed above in any Craigslist emails you're receiving (unable to meet in person, pressure to pay by third party service, elaborate stories, etc.), then you can flag it by scrolling down to the bottom of the email message, then select the link under "Please flag unwanted messages (pam, scam, other):" to notify Craigslist moderators and prevent the scammer from reaching you again.

I'm Already a Victim. What Should I Do?

If you've fallen victim to a Craigslist email scam, you can do the following:

How Do I Avoid Being Targeted For the Craigslist Email Scam?

Since everyone uses email, which is also the safest and easiest way to start communicating with someone on Craigslist, it's almost impossible to avoid being targeted by a Craigslist email scammer. If you're posting an ad on Craigslist, make sure not to include your real email address in your description and select Craigslist mail replay in your contact info options.

If you'd prefer not to use Craigslist email relay, you can consider creating an email alias and use that to accept replies to your Craigslist ad.