Surviving Craigslist

Buying Safely: It’s a Jungle out There—This is Your Field Guide

The king of classifieds is a vibrant, misunderstood marketplace. If you’re intrigued by the promise of fantastic deals on desirable items but wary of the shady reputation and horror stories you’ve heard, this series will help you buy, sell, and stay safe doing it.

In 1995, Craig Newmark built a mailing list to help his friends discover local events in San Francisco. With a focus on newcomers to the city, Craig’s list was geared toward software and internet service developers and their interests.

Within a year, the list had outgrown its format and demand was high for a web interface. Craig obliged, and as we know it was born.

Over the years, his users started expanding the scope of the classifieds, reaching beyond event notices and into job postings, for sale ads, and discussion threads. In the year 2000, Craigslist began spreading to more cities across the United States, and has since launched in more than 50 countries worldwide, becoming the 50th most visited site on the internet and serving over 20 billion page views per month.

Buying on Craigslist lacks the straightforward convenience of ordering something from Amazon or direct from the vendor, but it also has the potential to offer deals that are impossible to snag through more conventional channels. It’s a user-driven economy, with all the risks and rewards that implies.

To the user, it means that navigating Craigslist requires a bit more awareness, involvement, and caution, but once you’ve become used to it, it’s like having a marketplace of wonders at your fingertips.

Diving in is less daunting than many cautionary articles would have you believe. Most of what follows is a simple application of common sense, but it’s worth breaking it down into five simple steps that we can unpack:

  1. Do Your Research
  2. Narrow Your Search
  3. Get the Details
  4. Don’t Go Alone
  5. Don’t Be An Idiot

Ready? Let’s do this.

Step 1

Do Your Research

Research is the breakfast of online commerce — a fortifying meal to prepare for the trials ahead.

Research is about equipping yourself to ask the right questions and screen out problematic or shady posts. It saves you time and hassle, and it makes you that much more likely to secure a terrific deal. This is the stage you should be spending most of your time in.

Knowing what you’re buying is the first part of this process. This ranges from simple things like figuring out what the standard market prices and available discounts are to familiarizing yourself with potential pitfalls related to your item of interest.

Since it’s one of the most popular categories of item, let’s use the iPhone as an example. Doing your research means knowing what it would cost you to buy one either subsidized from your carrier (yuck) or outright from a store (yay), but it also means knowing about Apple’s Activation Lock system, designed to prevent stolen phones from being sold.

Now you can look at your local listings differently; if the price seems too good to be true, or the phone comes without a box and accessories, or they’re refusing to let you activate it with them, chances are the phone isn’t legit.

Before buying any iOS device second-hand, remember to run it through Apple’s Activation Lock tool to verify that everything checks out.

Let’s say that I want to buy a new iPhone. Having done my research, I know that I don’t want to pay more over the long term by subsidizing, that I don’t want a big phone, that I want TouchID, and that I need at least 32GB of storage. I’m not picky about colour.

This means I’m looking for an iPhone 5s, which retails for about $700+ tax for the 32GB version when ordered right from Apple, or a similar amount in stores.

Step 2

Narrow Your Search

Once you know what you’re buying, the next step is performing the right kind of search to get the results you need.

A great starting point is approaching it from the category of the item instead of performing the search across the whole of Craigslist. To continue with my iPhone example, let’s say I’m looking to get a great deal on a 5s now that the new generation is out and everyone is upgrading.

To begin, let’s go into the Cell Phones category and perform the search there. Here’s what it looks like by default:

Kind of messy, with lots of irrelevant ads.

From here, we can narrow things down a bit further. For starters, I recommend setting the search filter to owner only, which helps weed out shady resellers.

Getting better!

Activating title only is often a good idea as well since many people mention popular items as “tags” in their post content despite selling something entirely different.

Lastly, restrict the search to posts with images, not only because it’s important to see the item but because sellers who have taken the time to provide good photos of the item are obviously more serious than those who don’t. Stock photos don’t count.

Not much difference in this case, but a good principle to follow. Now we’re ready to start responding!

The next step is figuring out which ads are worth responding to and which are not. This is driven partly by the application of our research from before, and partly by intuition.

For instance, since I know that I want 32GB or more of storage, I can immediately disqualify six of the listings from our search (actually seven, since one of them is an ad for a case rather than the phone itself). For situations like this, it’s often worth setting a minimum price in the search filters to weed out the $10 cases when you’re searching for a $500 device.

We’re down to 9 potential ads worth responding to.

Next, since I know what carrier I’m with, I can further prune the list to remove phones that are locked to other carriers. If we assume I’m with Bell, that brings us down to a very manageable four possible listings worth responding to.

Suddenly the results look much less daunting to sift through.

From a cursory glance at the titles, I can already see some very promising deals: the first listing would save me more than $250 off the retail cost, and the following two would allow me to get twice the storage and a bonus leather case for almost $100 less than what it would cost me to buy half that storage capacity — without a case — in stores!

While I’ve used an iPhone as an example, this process applies to any search you perform on Craigslist. Naturally, there are many more results than what I’ve captured here but, again, the procedure you would use for narrowing down your options remains the same whether you have 10 results or 10 pages of them.

If you’re buying something uncommon, you may find yourself with no usable results whatsoever. That’s perfectly fine. Sometimes it takes patience to find good results, and if you’re not happy with what you’ve found one day, try again the next rather than rushing into potentially bad deals.

Step 3

Get the Details

With a shortlist of candidate ads assembled, it’s time to start sending out replies. There are three ground rules to answering ads:

  1. Be Quick
  2. Be Curious
  3. Be Concise

These are self-explanatory, and your chances of making successful transactions grows exponentially if you follow them.

Since there are many people out there searching for the same kinds of deals as you, being quick to respond makes you much likelier to engage the seller. The easiest way to be among the first responders is to set up an email alert; both Craigslist and Kijiji make this simple.

Drawing from the research you did, asking questions saves time and gets you the answers you need to determine how serious and legitimate a seller is. Some basic questions to ask include the following:

  • Will they allow you to try out the device/object?
  • Do they have a receipt for warranty purposes?
  • Are they the original owner or has it been through many hands already?
  • Why are they selling it?

Whether or not the answers to these questions is satisfactory depends on how genuine they seem to you. The biggest warning flag to watch out for is a seller who is cagey about details and unwilling to answer questions, provide evidence, or otherwise demonstrate goodwill.

Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions, and always be willing to negotiate on price — Craigslist is a bazaar, not a retail store.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Craigslist automatically protects your privacy by using an email relay system to obscure your actual address from the seller, and vice-versa. This is active by default and you should leave it that way because it prevents your address from ending up in the hands of the occasional spammer you might encounter.

Above all else, don’t feel pressured to make an impulsive decision at the expense of feeling comfortable with the situation; there will always be another ad.

If you find a seller who’s upfront about an item’s condition, responsive to communication, and willing to field your questions, then chances are very good that you have a smooth transaction ahead of you.

Step 4

Don’t Go Alone

Once you’ve found a good seller, it’s time to set up a meeting. Again, common sense prevails here; keep these simple guidelines in mind:

  1. Public spaces whenever possible
  2. Bring a buddy

In most cases, especially when dealing with the purchase of smaller items, it’s easy to set up a meeting at a mutually convenient public space. Coffee shops, malls, and other people-filled places are best. Be wary of any seller who refuses to meet you in a public space, or agrees to meet there only at odd hours.

One of the most popular category of items sold on Craigslist is vehicles and furniture. For obvious reasons, both the bulk and price of these items make it difficult to meet in a public spot, so you may find yourself invited to the seller’s home or place of business.

Think of Craigslist transactions like venturing into the wilderness. Most of the time, it’s a wonderful and slightly exhilarating experience. Sometimes though, things can be risky, so either take someone with you who can back you up or at the very least make sure someone knows where you’re going and can check in with you to make sure you’re okay.

No deal in the world is worth compromising your safety, so don’t do anything you don’t feel comfortable with, and don’t do it alone.

Perhaps the most important rule is this:

Meeting up is not an obligation to purchase.

Step 5

Don’t Be An Idiot

The reality is that your chances of being scammed on Craiglist or any other online marketplace are very low. Scammers prey on the gullible and the ignorant, so as long as you stay wary and follow the guidelines we’ve explored, you’ll almost always be perfectly fine.

There are a number of common scams on Craigslist to watch out for, and the website itself does its best to help you avoid problems by publishing a thorough safety page, the crux of which is right at the top:

Use this one weird trick to buy on Craigslist without dying! Scammers hate it!

A lot of the time, it’s easy to spot a scam. The listing itself might be hard to interpret, but the email responses you get if you answer will almost always be glaringly obvious: full of spelling errors, failing to mention the item by name, etc.

You can boil most of Craigslist’s safety tips down to three simple rules:

  1. Cash only — no cheques, money orders, PayPal, or bank transfer
  2. No shipping — it’s a local classifieds site; deal locally and face-to-face without exception
  3. Don’t tempt fate — she bites

The last point encompasses everything from not bringing a backpack full of expensive devices and your wallet when meeting, to not being so impatient about getting a great deal that you fail to follow the guidelines.

Be patient, be smart, and your Craigslist transactions will be nothing but pleasant.

Beyond Buying

Surviving Craigslist

As we’ve seen, being a successful citizen of Craigslist requires more involvement than your average Walmart zombie approach to shopping. In a way, it forces you to be a more discerning buyer, to focus on your needs and make sure you’re making a good decision.

Buying and selling on Craigslist has enabled me to obtain the latest devices for review without spending much money out of pocket, and I have met some valuable work colleagues and friends over the course of various transactions on the site.

While it may seem daunting to a newcomer, it helps to remember that you’re just interacting with other people on these marketplaces. Whether it’s Craigslist, Kijiji, or other international variations on the theme, the same principles apply.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Marius Masalar

Senior brand content strategist at 1Password. Occasional game composer, frequent photographer.