How to Protect Yourself Against Online Classified Ad Crime

Anonymous online conversations can lead to poor offline behavior. A rash of robberies in Oakland, California, for example, was traced to a gang of men advertising luxury cars for sale on Craigslist and then robbing and, in some cases, assaulting buyers who responded, according to a report by Aim Group.

Craigslist, however, called the study “false and defamatory” because it was commissioned by Oodle, a Craigslist competitor that encourages people who post or respond to use their real identity on Facebook.

Another service, ByOwner.com, offers more than 91 different categories of products and services. Advertisements are 100 percent free. And users that do not want their reviews to be featured in 1st or 2nd degree connections can opt-out to protect their privacy.

ByOwner uses a four-step verification process that utilizes a sophisticated social graphing tool for a more transparent process to research and complete safer classified advertising transactions, and has recently launched the “Friends of Friends” service, which highlights trusted reviews and opinions using social media connections from Facebook and LinkedIn.

“When searching through our classified ads, users will see their friend’s postings as well as postings from their friend’s connections,” says ByOwner.com’s CEO Greg Sullivan. “The new Friends of Friends feature increases the probability of an even greater personalized classified ad shopping experience by highlighting mutually connected users from a larger network of 2nd and 3rd tiered shoppers that may also know the people whom shoppers trust the most.”

The feature takes classified advertising from being an anonymous experience to one of transparency. “Being connected to a buyer or seller through a mutual connection greatly reduces the risk of becoming a victim of someone with mal-intent,” Sullivan said.

While conversations start online, they often end in face-to-face interactions. But anonymous online conversations can lead to what researchers call a “disinhibition effect,” when people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world. There are several reasons for online disinhibition:

  • When people have the opportunity to separate their actions from their real world and identity, they don’t have to own their behavior by acknowledging it within the full context of who they “really” are. When acting out hostile feelings, the person doesn’t have to take responsibility for those actions and may even convince themselves that those behaviors “aren’t me at all.” In psychology this is called “dissociation.”
  • The invisibility afforded by text communication gives people the courage to go places and do things that they otherwise wouldn’t.
  • In email and message boards, where there are delays in feedback, some people may experience asynchronous communication as “running away” after posting a message that is personal, emotional or hostile. It feels safe putting it “out there” where it can be left behind. In some cases, as Kali Munro, an online psychotherapist, describes it, the person may be participating in an “emotional hit and run.”
  • People may feel that the imaginary characters they “created” exist in a different space, that one’s online persona along with the online others live in an make-believe dimension, a dream world, separate and apart from the demands and responsibilities of the real world. They split or “dissociate” online fiction from offline fact.
  • People are reluctant to say what they really think as they stand before an authority figure. A fear of disapproval and punishment from on high dampens the spirit. But online, in what feels like a peer relationship – with the appearances of “authority” minimized – people are much more willing to speak out or misbehave.
  • The online disinhibition effect will interact with personality variables, in some cases resulting in a small deviation from the person’s baseline (offline) behavior, while in other cases causing dramatic changes.

classifiedCraigslist says hundreds of thousands of safe transactions take place through the service, but sites like Craigslist and eBay do potentially open up users to “robbery by appointment” because criminals can identify victims and have the luxury of scheduling their crimes.

Fraudsters use the Internet to dupe individuals looking to buy or sell items such as cars, boats, rental housing, or other products and services.

Personal safety is at risk in situations where consumers are asked to bring cash to a meeting with a potential “seller.” There have been reports across the country of buyers being robbed or worse when they arrive at meeting locations, expecting to pick up a television, computer or other item listed in an online ad.

Most Internet classified scams are predicated on convincing a victim to send money to someone who is not who they pretend to be, often through a money wiring, escrow or Internet payment service. And many perpetrators operate in countries outside of the United States, complicating law enforcement actions and attempts to retrieve money.

Citizens who are asked to wire or otherwise submit payment to a party in another country who they do not know should exercise great caution, as this is the primary red flag for a potential Internet classified scam.

Often a seller’s rating and feedback can be misleading. A high positive feedback percentage may be based on only one sale or a low total number of feedback postings around the same date and time.

Additional consumer tips to avoid Internet classified scams (by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office) are as follows:

  1. Consider your safety first. Whether buying or selling a product online, you will most likely not know the person with whom you are transacting. Take the following precautions to protect your safety: Arrange to meet in a public place; tell others where you are going, who you will be meeting and when you expect to return; ask a friend, family member or coworker to join you; bring a cell phone; if the situation seems suspicious or potentially dangerous, move to a safe location as quickly as possible.
  2. Beware of Internet payment services that you are asked to access through a link or in the body of an email. Remember that links can be masked, and logos and trademarks can be faked online. If you intend to use what you believe is a well-known Internet payment service, visit that company’s website yourself, rather than trust the information that another party is suggesting.
  3. Don’t be rushed. If someone really wants to do business with you, they will wait until you are ready to make a legitimate transaction. Furthermore, if an individual wishes to make changes to the terms of the transaction, such as where and how the payment is sent, do not let your eagerness to complete the transaction blind you to potential problems.
  4. Be wary of wiring money to a party that you don’t know. Many people mistakenly think that wire transfers, like personal checks, can be canceled at anytime. This is not true. If you wire money via Western Union or MoneyGram, it’s impossible to retrieve the money once it’s picked up at the other end. Because it can be picked up anywhere in the world, the money is virtually untraceable. Once money is wired overseas, United States law enforcement agencies may have little recourse in recovering lost funds.
  5. Cashier’s checks are NOT the same as cash. Counterfeit checks can look very authentic. Just because the money appears to be available in your account doesn’t mean that the check has cleared and is legitimate. Federal rules require banks to make deposits “available” to consumers quickly, often the following business day. A check takes a long time to clear. It may take a bank weeks to discover that the deposited check was fraudulent. The bank may still bounce the check if it’s a forgery. Once a victim wires funds onward from such a check, he or she may be liable to the bank for the amount wired.
  6. Typically the bank will not cover the loss, and expects the victim to pay the difference. If you the check and verify its legitimacy by contacting the issuing bank. Do not use the contact information that appears on the check. Do a little leg work and obtain the contact information independently through legitimate directories.
  7. Always be wary of someone who wants to pay more than your asking price or who wants to sell you an item at an unbelievably low price. A deal that sounds too good to be true probably is.
  8. Be wary of “third parties” or “agents.” If a third party is actually owed any money, their client should be making the payment, not you. Do not wire money to a third party.

Have you or has someone you know been a victim of an online classified scam? Do you use services such as ByOwner.com when looking to buy or sell online? Let us know in the comments.

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