Digital sales platforms like Facebook Marketplace can be amazing tools for buying and selling previously owned items, connecting with people in your community, reducing waste and earning a little extra cash. For example, I’ve managed to furnish much of my home at a discount with secondhand pieces listed on Facebook Marketplace, and I even found someone to sublet my last apartment through the platform.
Unfortunately, it’s also a popular place for scammers to find and exploit new victims. Although Facebook takes steps to protect users against cyber criminals, the sheer magnitude of listings and potential bad actors means it’s crucial to stay vigilant when engaging in transactions through the platform.
“What makes these scams so successful for the fraudsters is the speed and ease with which new listings can be posted and the ability to reach an enormous audience of potential victims thanks to Facebook’s popularity,” said Kevin Lee, a trust and safety architect with the fraud protection company Sift. “Many scammers can create new fraudulent listings at scale using automation and bots to quickly generate malicious content.”
From listing counterfeit goods as legitimate to steal money to pressuring buyers to share personal information for the purposes of identity theft, scams on Facebook Marketplace run the gamut.
“A fraudulent seller may advertise an item and collect the payment but never actually send the product,” said Ally Armeson, a program director at the Cybercrime Support Network. “Sometimes the scammer will provide false tracking information or disappear entirely once they receive payment. Another technique is that the scammer will send an item that is significantly different from what they advertised.”
She added that other scammers might send messages pretending to be from Facebook or a payment service asking for login credentials or payment information to gain unauthorized access to your account or steal your financial details.
Of course, plenty of Facebook Marketplace transactions are straightforward and scam-free. But it’s always best to go into the process with your critical thinking cap on. The same goes for other digital marketplaces like Craigslist and eBay.
To help would-be buyers and sellers, HuffPost asked experts to break down the common indicators of a potential online marketplace scam. They also advised avoiding fake listings and dealing with the aftermath if you do fall victim.
The listing or offer seems too good to be true.
“It may be a cliche, but the phrase ‘if it’s too good to be true, it probably is’ still holds true when it comes to identifying scams,” Lee said.
It pays to familiarize yourself with the typical price point for a product on the resale market.
“Do your research,” said Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support at AARP. “If you are looking for a car that everywhere retails for $5,000 and you find it on Facebook Marketplace for $1,000, that’s not a good deal ― that’s a red flag.”
This goes for both sides of the transaction. If you’ve listed a product for sale, be cautious about super high offers, just as you would with items listed at an extremely cheap price point.
“Sellers offer suspiciously low prices for high-ticket items,” said Zulfikar Ramzan, chief scientist at the digital security company Aura. “A buyer overpays for a product.”
The payment method seems suspect.
“Be wary if the seller insists on payment methods that seem suspicious, such as wire transfers, cryptocurrency or prepaid gift cards,” Armeson said.
Sometimes scammers insist on using a certain payment method and send specific instructions or links to payment.
“If they want prepaid gift cards, such as Amazon or eBay, stop ― you should not be using gift cards for payment,” Nofziger said. “Additionally, if they are asking for payment in crypto or in peer-to-peer apps, like Venmo, CashApp or Zelle, these forms are payment are untraceable and unretractable, and you could lose your money.”
Using Venmo is not always a sign of a scam, of course, but consider the context. For example, do they require you to Venmo them the payment before you can see or pick up the item?
Sellers should also pay attention to unusual payment activity. Armeson pointed to the phenomenon of “overpayment scams.”
“During an overpayment scam, a fraudulent buyer will try to overpay for an item, often by offering a check that is more than the asking price,” she explained. “The scammer will tell the seller to deposit the check and send the difference back to them. The check is fake, but if you deposit it, it will show up in your account. It can take several days for a bank to determine if a check is fake. Once they do, the bank will take the money out of your account, and you have lost the item and the money you sent to the scammer.”
She also warned sellers of fake mobile payment scams in which the scammer sends a phony notification confirming the payment of funds.
“Once the seller sees the verification, they send the item,” Armeson said. “Unfortunately, a day or two later, the seller discovers that the payment notification wasn’t legitimate.”
To be safe, try to pay for your item in cash when you pick it up in person. However, suppose the amount is more than you feel comfortable carrying. In that case, you may also feel secure paying through Venmo, PayPal or another digital payment platform on the spot once you’ve inspected the item and determined the exchange is legit. Facebook also offers a secure payment portal directly on the platform.
They push for external communication.
Be wary of people who insist on taking the conversation to an external app or ask for your phone number.
“Always stay on the platform for communication,” Nofziger said. “A big red flag is the person asking you to move off the platform to another communication app. They do this so your communications won’t be monitored.”
Their communication feels off.
Certain types of poor communication can also indicate that something is awry.
“If the seller is evasive, unresponsive or avoids answering specific questions, it could be a red flag,” Armeson said.
Listen to your instincts if it seems like the person you’re talking to is not an actual adult human.
“Look out for grammatical errors or strange wording in the post ― though generative AI tools like Chat GPT are making it easier for fraudsters to write more convincing prose,” Lee said.
All the images are clearly stock photos.
There are location inconsistencies.
“A red flag would be if the sellers refuse to meet in person,” Ramzan said.
You should plan to meet in person in a safe public place to examine the product before paying for it.
“Pay attention to location inconsistencies,” Armeson said. “If the seller’s location doesn’t match the item’s location, it might be a warning sign of a potential scam.”
What to do if you suspect you’re being scammed.
“If you notice any red flags, proceed with caution or stop communicating with the user altogether,” Ramzan said.
Don’t panic if you’ve already handed over money or personal information. Instead, spring into problem-solving mode.
“Taking immediate action is crucial to mitigate any potential damage and increases the chances of resolving the situation successfully,” Armeson said. “Cease any communication with the suspected scammer to avoid further potential harm but preserve the evidence you have. Take screenshots of any conversations, advertisements or transaction details related to the scam.”
This evidence can be helpful for the next step, which is to report the post and scammer to Facebook and inform your local law enforcement agency of the scam.
“Keep all documents, and file a police report,” Nofziger advised. “Although it will be very difficult for law enforcement to find these people and to get your money back, it’s still important to report the crime.”
“If you made a payment through a platform like PayPal or a credit card, contact the payment provider to report the scam and discuss potential chargebacks or fraud protection options,” Armeson said. “If you believe the scammer may have stolen your personal information at some point during the transaction, you may be at risk for identity theft. Keep an eye on your credit report and consider placing a freeze on your credit.”
Update any passwords or payment information you may have shared with the scammer. Check to see if you’re covered by Facebook’s Purchase Protection policy.
“Depending on how you made the payment, try and cancel the transaction, transfer or check,” Lee advised. “You may also need to cancel your credit card if you’ve given your information to the scammer.”