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

No one should ever require your phone number to complete a sale

The Craigslist text scam is actually a wide variety of scam texts involving the online sales service. Regardless of the version, each scam has the same goal: To get your personal information so scammers can steal your money.

What Is the Craigslist Scam Text?

These scams are designed to take advantage of the fact that you're looking to make money by selling things on Craigslist. Because both sellers and buyers tend to want deals to close quickly, scammers use a variety of methods to encourage the seller to hand over personal information in some way in order to complete the sale.

The goal is always to ultimately use that personal information to empty your bank account or involve your sensitive information in other scams somewhere else. In some scenarios, malicious software can even be downloaded to your phone that silently captures all your passwords and sensitive information.

How Does This Text Scam Work?

Cragslist scam texts work in a wide variety of ways. Here are some examples:

  • The Disappearing Buyer: For example, you might receive a reply for an item requesting your phone number so you can text one another about the deal. Once you send the number, however, the buyer never actually materializes to finalize the sale. Later, though, you will begin receiving mysterious texts encouraging you to click links that send you to fake websites requesting your personal information.
  • The Verification Code Buyer: In this one, the scammer texts the seller a request for a phone code from Google Voice to 'verify' the seller in some way. If the seller sends the code to the buyer, the scammer can now get a new Google phone number associated with you and use it for illegal activities or even get access to your Google account, including all your emails.
  • The 'Run This Report For Me First' Buyer: This usually involves the sale of a car: The buyer insists on receiving a car history report from a specific website and texts you the link to enter your car and personal details for the (fake) site.
  • The 'Oops I Sent Too Much Money So Will You Refund It to Me the Difference?' Buyer: While this can happen via email, too, the idea here is that the scammer claims to have sent you the money for an item already but accidentally sent too much. This text usually involves PayPal but can be used with any kind of mobile payment services. Surprise! There is no money in your account to 'return' to them but they will relentlessly pursue you and even threaten to report you for not returning their money as an intimidation tactic.

As sure as there are scammers, there are other variations of the Craigslist text scam.

How Do the Scammers Find Victims?

These text scam are based on the idea that the seller is desperate for cash and willing to make a sale in any way possible. Scammers simply watch Craigslist, pick and choose victims according to the day's whim, and see who bites. While scammers tend to be more interested in high-value items, they will target any listing.

How To Identify a Craigslist Text Scam

The best way to avoid these scams is to never give away your real phone number or email address to anyone you're speaking to from Craigslist. Instead, use the cloaked email service Craigslist provides.

Second, if you see any signs a Craigslist email you receive isn't legitimate (requiring your phone number to text instead of email, 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 (spam, scam, other):" to notify Craigslist moderators and prevent the scammer from reaching you again.

Third, pay attention to odd wording in texts. While typos occur, strange usage of the English language is a huge tip-off that the text is from a scammer. This example shows the type of odd wording that is common in scam texts.

An example of a Craigslist scam text with odd wording requesting a Google Voice verification code

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

Scammers rely on your embarrassment to keep them from being outed to authorities. Turn the tables on them by reporting them immediately.

If you believe your money is at risk, call your bank and credit card companies to alert them that you have been a victim. Next, file a fraud alert with the three major credit bureaus (ExperianTransUnion, and Equifax). To further protect your money and sensitive information, change passwords on any accounts that contain personal or financial details, then add two-factor authentication (2FA) to any accounts that offer it.

If you have clicked a link in a text message from a potential buyer on Craigslist, run anti-virus and anti-malware programs from trusted sources just in case that link silently downloaded malicious software to your phone. There are really good antivirus apps for both Android and even a few antivirus apps for the iPhone.

You can also file separate reports with your local FBI field office and the Federal Trade Commission’s Complaint Assistant. These reports are helpful in helping officials track down scammers; keep copies of the texts in case they’re ever needed for a future investigation or court case.

How Do I Avoid Being Targeted for the Craigslist Text Scam?

The best way to avoid becoming a target is to insist on using the cloaked email address that Craigslist provides. While texting is a quick and easy way to send directions or work with buyers, it also exposes you to scammers. If you would prefer to text, consider using an anonymous virtual phone number instead.

Whatever you do:

  • Don't click that link: No buyer should ever require to you to go to a website to sell your items. (Car sellers, in particular, should heed this warning.)
  • Never, ever respond to a suspicious text. Delete the message (get a screenshot if you decide to report it) and immediately block the sender
  • Carefully review each text you receive: Scammers rely on busy victims responding to any message received. Pay extra attention to texts that don't make sense or seem to make the overall buying process more complicated than it needs to be.