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Identity Theft Scammers Targeting Online Classifieds


Throughout the past week or so, scammers from Nigeria, Belgium and the UK have been coming after me in full force, via Craigslist. Unfortunately, the popular online classifieds website has become a launchpad for criminal activity. Everything from online affinity or advance fee scams to baby killers and the Craigslist killer have hampered the website’s reputation.

I use Craigslist to find renters for an apartment that I own. Last year, scammers copied my advertisement verbatim, except for the contact information, which they replaced with their own, and the price, which they reduced by half. The scammer, who claimed to be the property owner, informed potential renters that he was in Austria, and instructed them to drive by the apartment, and to send him a deposit check if they liked the look of the place. Fortunately, I happened to be present when a couple came by, per the scammer’s instructions. We discovered the ruse and contacted Craigslist. The fake ads continued popping up, but after numerous emails to Craigslist, they were all removed.

Last week I posted a new ad, and within minutes, I received the following email:

Subject: RENTAL INQUIRY!!hope to hear from you soon

Hello Robert,

Let me know if the room/apt you advertise on is still available and let me know if you can accept certified cashier check as mode of payment..And the last price for the space.

I’m presently in Belgium.I will be coming immediately the place is vacant for me to move in.But the issue is that because of the distance i wont be able to come to see the place.Meanwhile let me tell you a ill about myself..I don’t smoke and I don’t have boyfriend.Am Sarah Smith and my nick name is SERA and am 26years old i lost my dad some years back when i was young so my mom had to remarry so she married to Mr Scott Michael who is my step dad now..He has been the one who has been taking care of me all this while i believe he is a God sent to me cux i have never regretted moment with him..Things i like are as follows reading,swimming and chatting with people around me and also make them happy..I have always been thinking of how i will affect peoples life positively by making donations to the less privileges cus when i looked at my pass when i lost my dad from the story my mom told me..I noticed it is not easy for people that as no parent.Well i hope when we meet in person you will know more about me..Meanwhile my step dad will need the followings to make payment to you ASAP..

1.Your name and surname.
2.Address in full with the zip code..
3.I will need your phone number

I wait to have this information from you so that my step dad can make payment for the rental fee and security deposit in advance … I Await to hear from you….

Hope to hear from you pretty soon.

Thanks, SARAH

It’s easy to dissect this scam. The person who sent this email has two goals. First, the scammer wants to build a relationship with his or her mark. He or she provides a (horribly written) story in an attempt to establish trust. The victim is then more likely to fall for the scam, following the scammer’s instructions and conducting the necessary financial transactions. Many victims are foolish enough to provide account numbers or other personal identitifying information. Second, the scammer is setting up an affinity, or advance fee scam. In such a con, the scammer mails you a check. You deposit this check in your bank account, and it temporarily clears. In that limited window of time, the scammer will request that you return some or all of the money. He may claim to have changed his mind about renting or buying from you, or that he accidently made the original check out for more than the agreed upon sum. So you wire the money back. Within a day or two, the bank calls to let you know that the original check was counterfeit. So you’ve lost the money you wired to the scammer.

How can you protect yourself from scams like this, or other scams that take advantage of online classified ads? Use common sense, be smart, and pay attention. If you do that, you won’t fall for these types of cons.

When we were young, our parents told us not to talk to strangers. Strangers are not yet part of our trusted circle. So don’t trust them! There’s no benefit to paranoia, but being a little guarded can prevent you from stumbling into a vulnerable situation.  Since predators use online classifieds to lure unsuspecting victims, you should find out as much as possible about strangers who contact you. Use Google or to investigate names and email addresses.

Whenever possible, deal locally. People who cannot meet you in your town are more likely to be scammers. And even when you do meet in person, you should be wary.

Never engage in online transactions involving credit cards, cashier’s checks, money orders, personal checks, Western Union, MoneyGram or cash, that require you to send money to a stranger in response to money they have sent you. This is an advance fee scam.

Be smart. Don’t disclose your financial information, including account or Social Security numbers, for any reason. Scammers will say anything in order to get this information.

Prevent check fraud. When sending checks in the mail, you want to prevent “check washing,” which occurs when they recipient alters the name of the payee and increases the dollar amount, draining your checking account. Something as simple and inexpensive as a select non erasable  pen can help. These pens contain specially formulated gel ink that is absorbed into the paper’s fibers and can never be washed out.

Secure your PC. Make sure your PC is protected with anti-virus software and all your critical security patches in your operating system are up to date.

Protect your identity. You can’t prevent all forms of identity theft. However you can significantly reduce your risk by making a small investment in your personal security by investing in Identity Theft Protection or considering the options described in this blog post.

Robert Siciliano identity theft speaker discussing advanced fee scams



Comments: (2)

A Finextra member
A Finextra member 23 June, 2009, 13:53Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Dear Robert!
its a nice advice you giving us  "protect yourself" :-) Of course we all try to do our BEST. And in the word "BEST" I think lies the answer how to have less identity theft and misuse in the web. One really can do everything to protect himself but he will not be 100% successful. Why?
As long we are all using passwords for authentication in the web, we will all suffer from identity theft. Passwords are the weakest link of the whole value chain of internet business. We use passwords on sites that are out of every security qualifcation (social networks) and we tend to use the same passwords on sites with very high security claims (Bank accounts). Of course You will say it is the problem of the user who is using always the same passwords. But you really can´t.
So what is the problem with passwords? It is the fact that they are unmasked at the first time they are typed in on the keyboard. They are sent encrypted, hashed etc. it doesnt matter. They are just unmasked. Using alternatives or multi factor methods, everything gets more expensive. Currently there are approx. 3,5 Billion webusers worldwide. So a substitution of the password needs to be found. In fact not to be found but accepted. I am talking about methods that do never unmaske the secret of the user but are still knowledgebased. Just have a look at . It is an outsourced authentication service, which uses graphics and pictures and one time codes. It brand new and on the market already. Best regards

A Finextra member
A Finextra member 24 June, 2009, 07:40Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

To avoid check fraud you could always give the payer your bank account number and ask them to wire the money to you instead of sending a check. If you include this info in your rental ad, ("deposits by wire xfer only!") fraudsters will skip it.

Many identity theft articles warn not to give out your bank account number. I fail to see why, because you need to give it out, together with your name to be able to receive transfers.  And name+account number is not enough anywhere to withdraw or transfer any funds - you need to identify yourself as well.  

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