6 Ways to Avoid Scams When Selling Online

woman at laptop with hands over her mouth looking shocked

Selling items online you no longer need or want through websites and apps is a great way to earn extra cash and clear clutter. Unfortunately, it's also a great way for crooks to victimize or scam you. Knowing that scams exist — and knowing how to spot them — will go a long way toward keeping yourself from becoming another victim. So here are six surefire tips to avoid getting ripped off when you're selling your stuff online:

  1. Keep your personal information personal. Never give your account information, social security number, e-mail address, phone number or location to a stranger on the Internet. Craigslist allows people to use masked e-mail addresses, and some apps allow you to message potential buyers and sellers directly in the app itself, making it totally unnecessary to provide personal contact information. Under no circumstance should a buyer ever need access to your credit union account, or any other financial account for that matter. If they ask for your account number, it's a good indication they're up to no good. In the event that you need to exchange text messages, consider using a Google Voice number instead of your actual number. That way, when the transaction is complete you can cut ties.
  2. Meet in a public place. Most buyers are legit and have good intentions. However, we’ve all read news stories about people being robbed or assaulted as a result of online transactions. Meeting a stranger at your home just isn't worth that risk. Busy coffee shops or other retail establishments can be good options; police station lobbies or parking lots are even better. Extreme? Perhaps. But a legit buyer won’t balk at the suggestion, and will likely appreciate it because they are concerned about their own safety, too, because you're a stranger to them! Some police stations are even designated as Safe Trade Stations, a program developed by Advanced Interactive Media Group, a marketing firm that specializes in the classified advertising industry, with the intent to make these transactions safer for everyone involved.
  3. Look for safety in numbers. So you can’t exactly haul your sofa down to the local police station for a potential buyer to take a look. If you must have someone come to your home, be sure to have some friends and family with you. Take the item outside if at all possible and schedule the meeting during daylight hours. For extra security, you can even call your local police department and ask if an officer could drive by at the time of the meeting.
  4. Personal checks, cashier’s checks, wire transfers, or money orders mean trouble. Cash or maybe peer-to-peer payment apps like Venmo if you know and trust the seller are the only forms of payment you should accept (PayPal is OK for eBay transactions). Even Craigslist itself warns against accepting wired funds, checks, or money orders. If someone insists on one of these methods of payments, they are likely trying to scam you. Selling a big-ticket item, like a car or a boat? Consider meeting at your financial institution. That way, you can immediately deposit the cash into your account.
  5. Sell locally. According to Craigslist, you will avoid 99% of all scam attempts by simply dealing with local buyers. Long-distance scams tend to involve sob stories, language barriers, foreign princes, and offbeat suggestions for payment. Don’t engage in conversation with these scammers — just hit “delete” and be on your way. The exception would be if you decide to offer shipping that's sponsored by the website or app. As long as you are following the app’s protocol, the transaction should go through without a hitch. If the buyer wants to complete the transaction outside of the approved app, however, it could be a sign they are trying to scam you.
  6. Listen to your gut. This could be the most important tip of them all. We’ve all had that “something isn’t right” feeling come over us. If this happens at any point during a transaction, it is OK to walk away. The old cliché, "Better safe than sorry," applies here.

Unscrupulous “buyers” use all sorts of bizarre and sometimes scary tactics to try to trick sellers out of money. Some scams are elaborate, like sending a fake cashier’s check for a dollar amount higher than the agreed-upon price. The buyer then tells the seller that they “accidentally” sent the wrong amount and asks the seller to return the extra money. The trusting seller does, only to find out the check was fake to begin with. Not only does the buyer have the item, they have extra money in their own pocket, while the seller is out the money plus the item they were selling.

And then there are scams of a simpler nature, like the one where someone tries to trick you into giving them something for free. I once received offers from the same person for two separate items through a website. We agreed on a price for each item and arranged a meeting. When I arrived, however, she only had enough cash for one item and suggested I just give her the other one. Excuse me? I pointed her to the nearest ATM, but she never returned. The whole transaction screamed “scam” (or, scam attempt) to me.

These tales are disheartening, but don’t let them intimidate you! After all, there is money to be made...and who doesn’t love a few extra bucks in their pocket? The key here is to be aware.


One of the best ways to identify if your personal information has been compromised is by reviewing your credit report. As a member of Hanscom Federal Credit Union, you can examine your report at no cost. Speak with a professional to find out what is on your report and how to correct errors. 

Review Your Credit Report For Free


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Dawn Weinberger

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