• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Fraud on Craigslist

A tale of warning.


February 11, 2016

I own a lake house in Penn Yan, New York, on Keuka Lake. Growing up in Rochester, with Lake Ontario to the north and the Finger Lakes to the south, and the Erie Canal running almost literally in my backyard, I loved water and boats and begged my parents to get a cottage or campsite. That wish went unheeded until the passing of my second parent, at which point I used inheritance as a down payment for this place.  At the time, my partner was the Episcopal priest for the local church in Penn Yan and we needed the second residence. She has since moved on to Rochester, ironically, and the university there. With the taxes and other expenses being what they are, I decided to rent the place in order for our family to keep it.

For a handful of years now, I have used a hosting site for which I pay good money, almost a grand a year, to advertise for the site. Early on I learned to discern the fraudulent requests, the ones that chose unusual, off season dates (“great, unexpected income!”), then came up with some reason why they would send money (bad checks or money orders) for which then I was supposed to send money (a good check or money order) back. Knock on wood, no one ever caught me in their deceitful net. 

This year as I noticed the usual number of inquiries going down, I decided to co-host the site on AirBnB. Interesting business model!  For the property owner, the site is free. The renter pays a small fee to book. The downside is that the site overly controls communications, including blocks on alternative forms of contacts.  That control is a security measure against spam and it supports the enterprise by maintaining a tight wrap around the transaction process.  Even though it is a service free to me, I still prefer the one for which I pay and have more freedom. If for no other reason, that flexibility helps record keeping.

A week ago my colleagues at Cornell’s Continuing Education emailed me. Someone had called looking for a way to get in touch with me. Something about the property I rent … Never mind that I have a unique name on the Internet and the gentlemen could have found many sources by which to make contact, his intentions were precisely in the right place.  He was looking on Craigslist and saw a Finger Lakes property for rent but the “agent” who alleged to represent it is in Kansas City and he thought that was strange. Could he talk with me to authenticate the agent?

I spoke with the gentleman and sure enough he correctly smelled a rat. I have no agent for the property although on occasion my adult son and his partner have helped me with some transactional aspects (they live in Ithaca, and I am now primarily in Massachusetts). Nearer to the property, my friend Bill up the street keeps an eye on things and is there to assist renters if they run into a glitch.  I don’t know anyone in Kansas City (if that is in fact where the bad actor lives) and certainly no one by the name (surely an alias) of this person who alleges to represent my interests in the house. 

I have told you this long tale to make this point: It is exhausting difficult to address the fault. The local F.B.I. in Ithaca appears perpetually out to lunch. The one in Albany replied with a pessimistic routine note saying that with too many cases to address we should not expect much. At least the local Yates County Sheriff is willing to meet with us. I don’t know yet their capabilities in addressing a cross-state (or possibly international) heist, but I am grateful that they are at least attentive and therefore apprised should two renters, one bona fide and the other hoodwinked, show up this summer for the same week.  Craigslist is useless.

Their big advice is contact law enforcement.  Well good luck there … as I have noted, we have done our best and so far it is completely inadequate. Their failure to deal directly with me has therefore accounted for any number of people to continue to be deceived by this fraudulent site.  Since last Friday I have received three more messages from potential renters who were suspicious. One even looked up property records to find my name and contacted me through my business to authenticate the site. Another was an older man from central Pennsylvania who had a hunch something was wrong about it. And the fraud goes on and on … how many others are being lulled into false transaction on this counterfeit site?

Consider it warning, Craigslist: if anyone asks me advice about how to redress, I will suggest that they sue you for failure to act.  And don’t give them the “section 230” slip.  It might work for defamation, but not for patently illegal activities.  Your site must be responsible as a contributor. And for heaven’s sake, F.B.I., get a grip!  Finally, I hope this little bully pulpit draws attention to the problem and you get that fraudulent post off your site!  http://fingerlakes.craigslist.org/vac/5405186183.html



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