The Truth About Craigslist

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
the truth about craigslist

From candy corn to Lincoln Continentals, Craigslist is the ultimate Turkish bazaar. It's an almost universally accessible free market for millions of folks who once paid (and paid) for the ‘privilege’ of selling their stuff. From a pistonhead perspective, Craigslist seems to be a great place to buy and sell automobiles. Even a brief scan shows that the site offers a vehicle for every type of appliance seeker, enthusiast and hobbyist. I’ve been using Craigslist as my site du jour for nearly three years. During that time, I’ve sold more than a hundred vehicles through the service. But I'm a pro, and I’m here to warn you that there's a dark side to the deal.

While Craigslist offers free, instant access to an enormous quantity of listings and potential buyers, car buyers and sellers get very little information about the vehicle involved. Vehicle Identification (VIN) numbers, ownership histories and other critical details regarding the car’s true condition (i.e. collisions, insurance claims, outstanding debt) are few and far between. You can imagine what happens next…

I’ve seen cars from commercial auctions with salvage and rebuilt titles advertised on Craigslist with nary a mention of these “issues.” And that’s not the half of it. I’ve heard numerous tales of car dealers stuck with lemons using Craigslist to make lemonade, sticking their poison fruit on someone else’s plate. And these are just the pros. We’ll never know how many less than scrupulous private sellers have hidden potentially lethal problems or grievously misrepresented their rides.

Craigslist– like any website encouraging “real world” interaction– also has the potential to connect buyers or sellers with deviants, thieves and thugs. Scam artists bent on identity theft can use Craigslist contact to solicit credit card information from all-too-gullible buyers. Fake car buyers can show-up for a test drive, convince buyers to let them take a solo test drive, and disappear. But wait; there’s worse…

Way back in July ‘06, the San Francisco Gate newspaper reported that several Craigslist advertisers were held up at gunpoint by criminals posing as buyers and sellers. “In April, two men in Boston who responded to an ad for a used 1995 Honda Civic were robbed of their money,” the paper reports. “The suspect directed the men behind a house to look at the car, and then pulled a gun and forced the victims to the ground before fleeing, according to Boston police.”

Obviously, printed classifieds also offer (offered?) criminals a chance to find their marks. But just as the web makes commercial transactions vastly more efficient, Craigslist has made it easier for dangerous and devious criminals to identify, lure and victimize their targets.

Crime thrives in the dark. Returning to the actual transaction, the scrupulous seller who provides full disclosure on Craigslist is no more likely to find favor than the unscrupulous scammer whose car title is as genuine as a thirty-three dollar bill. Once a Craigslist user buys a vehicle, it’s theirs and that’s that. A dishonest seller can easily continue with their deceptive and dishonest practices, under a different name if necessary.

Craigslist does not attack abuse. Click on the New York City site’s “personal safety tips” and you’re assured that the “incidence of violent crime has been extremely low.” One of five bullet pointed tips advises you to “trust your instincts.”

Click on “avoid scams” and the site advises you to “DEAL LOCALLY WITH FOLKS YOU CAN MEET IN PERSON – follow this one simple rule and you will avoid 99% of the scam attempts on Craigslist.” And if that one simple rule doesn’t save you from fraud, they refer you to the Federal Trade Commission, the Internet Crime Complaint Center or your local police’s “non emergency number.”

The real answer to this question is on eBay. Not only does eBay have a Global Law Enforcement Operations Team that actively pursues fraudsters, but they also provide buyers with a feedback mechanism to check the seller’s reputation. Sellers must provide a vehicle’s VIN number, which links to a downloadable AutoCheck report ($7.99). eBay also automatically protects buyers of qualified passenger vehicles against certain types of fraud (e.g. it’s a stolen car, unrevealed damage above $1k or a vehicle simply never gets delivered), up to $20k.

All of which means that scam artists have a harder time slipping through eBay’s net, and if they do, the car buyer has financial or criminal redress.

Since I first used Craigslist, the site has gone from being a quality-focused website to the electronic equivalent of the Wild West. The days when this electronic bazaar was a well kept secret used by overwhelmingly decent and (how can I say this nicely) intelligent users are long gone. The truth is that anyone who uses Craigslist instead of eBay now does so at their own peril, which is far greater than most people realize.

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  • Terry Parkhurst Terry Parkhurst on Jan 06, 2008

    I know one collector car dealer who (still) buys cars off of Craig's List (grammar corrected) and the reason is that he is willing and able to fix up cars that are oftentimes very much in need of work; and then sell them. He also, will occasionally sell cars via the site; since he is too cheap to pay for newspaper classified advertising. Admittedly, you get the same sort of people responding: bottom feeders. So why pay for that? He maintains a web site of his own, for those people who are more likely to be serious buyers; and in any case, meets people at his secure warehouse, in a very public place, only after screening them on the phone. Since he has been in the business of selling collector cars for the better part of three decades, he is quite good at "qualifying the buyer," as the saying goes. Even eBay has its limitations, most especially if you buy or sell to someone outside the United States. Another collector car dealer friend, who bought a microcar from someone in South America, told me that he had to get the FBI involved, when he finally took possession of the car he'd bought; and saw that the condition did not match the claims made. But as Steven Lang has noted, at least with eBay, there are set policies in place to give some assurance of legitimacy. Craig's List is an absolute piece of shit. "What expect for free" someone posting a comment asked earlier? I expect to get nothing and having sold several items through eBay Motors, can assure anyone that it is a better site to sell than Craig's List (where I tried listing on the items and never heard a thing, which might have been a blessing in disguise). Thing is, at a site where anyone yahoo can list or respond for free, you can likely expect one thing: trouble or plethora of stories to be told, later to friends or in court. A major problem Craig's List has is its lousy methodology for reporting problems. I had the misfortune of renting from a particularly nasty slumlord, for a few years; until I was able to move. I tried to warn others, when I saw his rental ads posted; but was never able to do so. I finally ended up - along with 8 other former and then current tenants - posting warnings about the guy at, a site for reviewing businesses of all sorts. The Internet is akin to America, before Theodore Roosevelt started to put regulations in place to ensure that American consumers could be protected. The term "let the buyer beware" applies to the Internet, as does "let the seller beware." Likely it will remain that way for the foreseeable future. Whether that is good or bad, is the subject for another forum, perhaps the presidential debates later this year, when the smoke clears and two people are left standing.

  • Arach Arach on May 18, 2016

    Wildly outdated. eBay is getting rough. So many sellers "cancel" or "refuse to sell the car" after a contract is completed, and ebay does nothing about it but give them a "strike". even so much as me driving 4 hours to get the vehicle. However, if you try to back out you are in a legal contract, so you technically can't. Then the number of "auctions" for vehicles that have super high reserves is almost humorous. Selling is worse because people don't show up or pay (but your locked into a contract so you have to wait several weeks to relist it) Its turning into the wild-wild-west. I have bought 6 vehicles on ebay, but only received 3, and the other 3 were because of the seller. I have sold 4 vehicles on eBay but 2 were the same car and no one ever actually got it, I ended up selling that one on Craigslist. Craigslist has always been the Wild-Wild west, but there's no "deal" until theres a deal, which has its benefit. As long as you are smart about it, it seems much safer to me. I've bought or sold in the ballpark of 30 vehicles there. Autotrader has gotten awful. We posted 2 cars and didn't get a single call on either. Just because I thought Autotrader was junk, I kept dropping the price every few weeks for my BMW 3 series e90. I sold it on Craigslist, but kept it on Autotrader. I dropped it from 11,500 down to 4,800 a few hundred bucks at a time and never even received a single call. We had an SUV we listed on there and we received 2 calls but both were scams. A joke for the price. I've had similar luck buying. I've tried calling and emailing sellers on there and never get a response, then I look and see tha the car has been on there for like 300 days- they probably sold it and just never pulled their listing. Then the MANUAL thing. So many cars are listed with faulty info (State manual transmission but its really automatic) and similarly. needless to say I've paid to sell on Autotrader and tried to buy and have done 0 vehicles on there!

  • Redapple2 Why does anyone have to get permission to join? Shouldnt the rules to race in a league be straight forward like. Build the car to the specs. Pay the race entry fee. Set the starting grid base on time trials.?Why all the BS?I cant watch F1 any more. No refuel. Must use 2 different types of tires. Rare passing. Same team wins every week. DRS only is you are this close and on and on with more BS. Add in the skysports announcer that sounds he is yelling for the whole 90 minutes at super fast speed. I m done. IMSA only for me.
  • Redapple2 Barra at evil GM is not worth 20 mill/ yr but dozens (hundreds) of sports players are. Got it. OK.
  • Dusterdude @SCE to AUX , agree CEO pay would equate to a nominal amount if split amongst all UAW members . My point was optics are bad , both total compensation and % increases . IE for example if Mary Barra was paid $10 million including merit bonuses , is that really underpaid ?
  • ToolGuy "At risk of oversimplification, a heat pump takes ambient air, compresses it, and then uses the condenser’s heat to warm up the air it just grabbed from outside."• This description seems fairly dramatically wrong to me.
  • SCE to AUX The UAW may win the battle, but it will lose the war.The mfrs will never agree to job protections, and production outsourcing will match any pay increases won by the union.With most US market cars not produced by Detroit, how many people really care about this strike?