So, I try to be a good (enough) son. After we found my mom her adorable new 1957 Edition Fiat 500, I offered to handle the sale of her 2003 Volkswagen Passat for her. Finally, after months and months of careful procrastination, I finally got it all ready for sale, and almost immediately I was the target of a Craigslist scammer. Because, you know, everyone sucks, sometimes.
I’d like to tell you about how this scam plays out because it seems to be a fairly common Craigslist scam targeted at people selling cars. I was able to spot it as questionable fairly quickly, but you never know; it’s possible a scammer with more skill could potentially pull something like this off.
Here’s how it went. I put up the ad for my mom’s old car this past Saturday. Nothing fancy, just a normal CL ad selling a well-maintained 2003 V6 Passat sedan. It’s in good shape! My mom was the only owner, and I’m not certain I’ve ever seen her drive over 45 mph. Anyway, I put the ad, and then went about my business.
Very soon after the ad went up, I got this text message:
So, right off the bat, it’s a little weird, with the copy/pasting of the ad headline right there in the text. I mean, it’s not that strange, but every other time I’ve been selling a car on Craigslist, people just text and say “Is the car still available,” or maybe something more specific like “Is the Passat still available.” Again, it wasn’t necessarily any real cause for concern, but I noticed it.
After I told the guy that, yes, the car is still available, here’s what he told me:
Aside from the appalling space/punctuation usage, it’s fairly normal seeming. Well, except for the PayPal part, which I’ve never used for a Craigslist transaction. I’ve used PayPal plenty for eBay and other payments, so I’m not entirely opposed to the idea of a PayPal payment, really.
I told the guy I preferred cash, but I’d consider a PayPal payment. I figured I may as well move ahead, so I asked when he’d like to check out the car, and got this response:
Okay, now I’m really starting to feel like something weird is going on. Why is a guy in New Jersey so hot to buy a 2003 Passat from North Carolina? Why does he want to close this deal right now? These aren’t exactly exquisite, rare collectors’ cars here. I mean, I always thought this era of Passat was the best-looking, but come on – this isn’t a Phaeton I’m letting go for three grand here.
I asked if he really wanted to buy the car sight unseen, and he just said his “9agent” would come to pick up the car once I got the payment confirmation in my PayPal account. Since this all was still feeling weird, I decided to throw a little bit of a curve ball to see if the guy was a bot or something:
After that he went quiet. Curious, I decided to push it further; I told him I was kidding about the fire, and asked him to call me so I could confirm he’s an actual person. He texted that he was in a “restricted area,” whatever the fuck that means (penal colony? underground mine? geosynchronous orbit over New Jersey?) but he did soon call.
The phone call was possibly the most unintelligible call I’ve ever had. I’m not sure I understood a single word. It was the most garbled, worst-connection call I’ve been on that didn’t just disconnect out of technical shame. I could tell there was a person talking, mostly, but that’s about it.
I reminded him again that I found all this a little confusing, and when I asked why he was so hot to buy this car several states away, he just asked me not to sell it to anyone else, since he was “really interested” in buying it from me. For some reason.
I tried adding a few conditions to see what he’d accept; I said the car had one of those Progressive Insurance GPS tracker things on it (it doesn’t), and he was okay with that. I said I wanted to meet his agent in the parking lot of the local police department, and he was okay with that, too.
In fact, the only thing that made him go dark was when I asked for a photo of his driver’s license. At that point he stopped responding.
So, what, exactly, was going on here? Why the rush, why the insistence on PayPal, why did he want this ordinary car so badly?
The answer, of course, is that this is a scam. It’s a fairly well-known scam, too, and it can play out in a few different ways. According to the Better Business Bureau, here’s two ways this could go down:
You post a big-ticket item (vehicle, computer, furniture) for sale on Craigslist, eBay or another online sales site. An interested buyer contacts you and says that he or she wants to buy the item right away and arranges to meet for the exchange.
When you arrive, however, the buyer doesn’t have cash. Instead, they claim to have sent the money through PayPal. You check your email and, sure enough, you have what appears to be a message from PayPal confirming the transfer. The scammer may even claim that the transfer is “invisible,” and that’s why you can’t see it in your PayPal account.
Of course, there is no such thing as an “invisible” transfer. The scammer didn’t send any money, and is just trying to take your item without paying. Some versions of this scam also have an overpayment twist. In these, the scammer “accidentally” overpays you for the item. For example, he or she “sends” you $2,000 payment for the item you are selling for $200. Then, he or she requests that you wire back the difference. By the time you figure out the PayPal transfer was a fake, the scammer is long gone.
So, fake account, no real transfer of money, they get your car. Or, they use a fake or stolen account to overpay you, then ask you to wire them back the difference. In the case of a stolen account, you could be liable for sending the money back to the person who’s account it came from, and you’re out your car.
There’s also a variant of this for people without PayPal accounts, where the buyer sends a fake link to make a PayPal account, and that site then grabs all their bank and other private information.
The overall result of all of this is, this guy, Davis from the part of New Jersey with terrible cell phone coverage, wanted to pretend to pay me and then steal my mom’s car. That’s a shitty thing to do.
I was able to see that something wasn’t right, but if I just left this up to my mom, I know she’d have no idea. And, if this guy had been a little smoother in how he approached it, hell, maybe I could even have been suckered in. Who knows?
There’s important lessons here: first, remember, PayPal doesn’t protect you for items exchanged in person. So, if I had taken a fraudulent PayPal payment for the car and then found out it wasn’t real, I’d be boned.
The safe bet is to not use PayPal for any in-person sales. Even cashier’s checks can be tricky, as there’s similar scams involving those, too. Cash is, of course, safest, but I suppose even that could be counterfeit, so maybe I should just drive my mom’s car off a cliff and pretend like I have no idea what she’s talking about.
What money? From what car? Mom, are you feeling okay?
Nah, I’d feel bad about that at some point.