Ask a Lawyer

Feb 142011
Authors: Forrest Orswell

Craigslist is a great tool for any number of things. Buying tickets to a concert or a game, finding a great used snowboard or listing that extra room in your house for rent to name a few. However, anyone who has used Craigslist knows that scams can be around every corner.

One common scam involves someone offering to purchase an item or rent a room from you. The specifics of this scam change, but the basics stay the same. This is one example:

They will e-mail and tell you they are from out of the state or country but are very interested in what you have. They agree to buy or lease your item and will send you a check. They promise to come and pick up the item when they arrive in town.

Before the check arrives, another e-mail comes in saying a terrible mistake was made. They wrote the check for $2,000 instead of $200. The e-mail asks that when you receive the check, would you please deposit it in the bank, keep the $200 for the item plus $100 for your trouble and send the balance back to them via wire transfer or cashier check.

Obviously, the proposition of making $100 for doing not much of anything sounds good. So the student takes the check to the bank and deposits it in their account. The bank doesn’t alert them to any problems, so they feel good about the transaction. They then wire the $1,700 off to the purchaser and figure they made a quick $100 and sold their item.

The problems start about 8 days later when the bank alerts the student that the $2,000 check was returned for non-sufficient funds. How can this be? Well, the law says that it is your responsibility to know that the check you’re depositing is good, not the banks … So now the bank is charging the student $2,000, plus overdraft fees on their account. Unfortunately, at this point there is not much Student Legal Services or the police can do to help the student. They have been scammed, and there’s no way to track the identity of the thief.

So, what can you do to protect yourself? Here is a partial list of the most important rules directly taken from Craigslist:

Deal locally with folks you can meet in person. Follow this one rule and avoid 99 percent of scam attempts on Craigslist.
Never wire funds via Western Union, Moneygram or any other wire service –– anyone who asks you to do so is a scammer.
Fake cashier checks and money orders are common, and banks will cash them and then hold you responsible when the fake is discovered weeks later.

Never give out financial information (bank account number, social security number, ebay/PayPal info, etc.)
Do not rent housing without seeing the interior or purchase expensive items that you haven’t seen–– in all likelihood that housing unit is not actually for rent and that cheap item does not exist.

Do not submit to credit checks or background checks for a job or for housing until you have met the interviewer or landlord/agent in person.

The most important rule of all is if something seems too good to be true, it probably is! Use your head and don’t get burned.

Forrest Orswell is a staff attorney for Student Legal Services. SLS is available to students needing help with their legal issues. They can be found in Room 182 of the Lory Student Center, online at or call 491-1482. Send your questions for this column to the Director of SLS, Kathleen Harward, at

 Posted by at 2:22 pm

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