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Classifieds scams

What is a classified scam?

Classifieds scams can target both buyers and sellers who use classifieds websites.

For buyers:
Buyers should beware of scammers who pose as genuine sellers and post fake ads on both online classifieds websites and in print classifieds. The ad can be for anything from rental properties, to pets, used cars, boats, bikes, caravans, horses and saddles. It could even include pictures and other details – often copied from a genuine seller’s ad. In order to lure a number of victims in a hurry, the scammer advertises the item at a low price, often much lower than comparable items advertised on the same site.

When you show interest in the item, the scammer may claim that they are travelling or have moved overseas and that an agent will deliver the goods following receipt of payment. Following payment you may receive a fake email receipt claiming to be from the website’s secure payment provider, however, once you send money, you won’t receive the goods and will not be able to contact the seller.

In the case of rental properties, the scammer will pose as a property owner or landlord and post a fake copy of a genuine rental property advertisement. When you show interest, the scammer will make excuses as to why you cannot inspect the property, often claiming that they are currently overseas. If you are still interested, they will ask for bond, rent payments or deposits in advance. You will never receive the keys to the property and the scammer will disappear with your money. If you have handed over copies of personal identification documents, or other personal information, these could be used to commit identity fraud.

For sellers:
Scammers posing as genuine buyers also target consumers who sell goods through print and online classifieds websites. The approaches used by scammers vary, but often they will contact you wanting to buy your goods, but will make up stories such as needing your help to pay an agent or third party for upfront costs like transportation or insurance. The scammer will promise you reimbursement for these costs, however once you have paid, there is no reimbursement and it is often too late to recover the money and/or contact the ‘buyer’.

Another variation is when the scammer poses as a buyer and makes you a generous offer for the item you are selling. If you accept the offer, the scammer then sends you a cheque, but the cheque is for more money than the agreed sale price. The scammer will invent an excuse for the overpayment, for example to cover the fees of an agent or extra shipping costs. The scammer might just say that it was a mistake.

The scammer will then ask you to refund the excess amount—usually through an online banking transfer or a wire transfer. The scammer is hoping that you will do this before you discover that their cheque has bounced. You will have lost the money you gave the scammer, and if you have already sent the item you were selling, you will lose it as well.

Warning signs

  • Offers which seem too good to be true.
  • Products, services or rental properties advertised at very low prices, often lower than comparable items advertised on the same and other website.
  • The potential ‘buyer’ is willing to purchase your item without having viewed it in person - even if you are selling an expensive item such as a car.
  • A potential overseas ‘buyer’ is interested in purchasing your item despite it being a commonly available item in their home country, for example a car or a couch. Often the shipping costs would far outweigh the cost of the item itself.
  • The other party wants to complete the sale/transaction outside of the website’s payment systems (if you do this, you lose any protections that the site operator offers to their users).
  • The other party insists on immediate payment, payment by electronic funds transfer or a wire transfer.
  • Following payment you may receive a fake email receipt claiming to be from the website’s secure payment provider.

Protect yourself from online classified scams

  • Be cautious—if the advertised price of a good, service or rental property looks too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Don’t trust the legitimacy of an ad just because it appears in a reputable newspaper or classifieds website—scammers post fake ads in these too.
  • Where possible, avoid any arrangement with a stranger that asks for up-front payment via money order, wire transfer or international funds transfer. It is rare to recover money sent this way.
  • Do an internet search using the exact wording in the ad—many well-known scams can be found this way.
  • Request a number of photos of the item from the seller, if they refuse it may be that they have stolen a photo from a genuine ad and have no others.
  • Remember: when looking to buy a pet, it is impossible to import an animal from overseas in a few weeks as quarantine procedures need to be followed. For details check the requirements with the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service.
  • For rental properties, insist on inspecting the property - a drive-by is not enough. The property may genuinely exist, but it might be owned by someone else.
  • If you are looking for an overseas rental, carry out a web search on the property or speak with a real estate agent in the area to ensure it is genuine.

As well as following these specific tips, find out how to protect yourself from all sorts of other scams.

Report scams

If you think you’ve spotted a scam, report a scam to SCAMwatch or contact the ACCC on 1300 795 995. You should also spread the word to your friends and family to protect them.

More information

SCAMwatch has issued the following radars on classifieds scams in the past:

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