The terrors of Craigslist

So is Craigslist a handy free alternative to newspaper classifieds — a sort of virtual flea market and community bulletin board — or is it a haven for criminals and creeps looking to rip you off or worse?

What’s gotten me thinking about this perennial question is a lurid and depressing expose of the Craigslist criminal underworld in, of all places, Maxim magazine, generally more known for its exposes of the scantily clad bodies of Hollywood hotties.

The story, by Frank Owen, delves into some of the more notorious crimes associated with Craigslist, spending the most time on the case of accused “Craigslist killer” Philip Markoff, who allegedly targeted victims for robbery in the site’s “Erotic Services” section. But Owen also delves into the less sensationalistic scams that proliferate on the site, interviewing one scammer who says he collected thousands of dollars from an ingenious bed-and-breakfast bait-and-switch:

[The scammer] wrote a carefully worded posting [advertising] an “amazing bed and breakfast in the heart of Paris.” The address he gave was a nondescript apartment building where he’d once stayed. Then he downloaded a picture of a cozy-looking interior from a magazine, clicked on a button, and, presto ….

Immediately Church was inundated with queries. People wanting to book a room were instructed to send a 50-Euro nonrefundable deposit to Church’s PayPal account. On receipt of the money, Church e-mailed a fake invoice. More than 300 people fell for the scam.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Owen describes all sorts of other scams, and a quick Google search will bring up countless others; this site keeps an ongoing tally.

Of course, as fans of Craigslist point out, the vast overwhelming majority of Craigslist posts don’t lead to fraud or murder; they lead to the same sort of person-to-person bartering or buying that newspaper classifieds lead to. As Owen himself acknowledges, “Craigslist is an indispensable resource for tens of millions of people worldwide: With 40 million posts a month and sites in 570 cities and 50 countries, it is one of the icons of Web 2.0, as recognizable a brand as Facebook or Google.”

So the answer to the question I started out with is, then, both: Craigslist is floor wax and a dessert topping — a handy free alternative to newspaper classifieds and a haven for crooks and creeps.

For some, who have a basic trust in human nature, buying and selling stuff on Craigslist makes perfect sense, especially with the economy in its current parlous state. It’s an easy way to pick up new (well, new-to-you) stuff on the cheap or to make a little extra money unloading stuff you no longer need or want.

But I’m not buying it. Literally: I’ve never bought or sold anything on Craigslist, nor do I plan to anytime soon (and yes that includes “Erotic Services”). It’s not that I’m scared to buy from strangers online; I do that all the time, through eBay and and Amazon Marketplace. The difference is that, on these sites, I’m dealing with sellers who are accountable for their actions; they have reputations (and feedback scores) to protect. That doesn’t guarantee they’ll behave honestly or in a businesslike manner — I’ve dealt with a couple of bozos — but it vastly improves the odds.

Do you have enough faith in human nature to use Craigslist, or do its unsavory aspects keep you away?

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