A few months ago, Diana, a mother of three in Washington, D.C., posted a "tickets wanted" ad on Craigslist for a Thomas the Tank Engine event at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore. Tickets to the event had already sold out, and she was trying to find a way to still bring her family. Two different sellers contacted her through the website in response to her posting, each claiming to have the five tickets she needed.
Twice, Diana (last name withheld for privacy) sent the money for the tickets, around $180, through PayPal, and waited to receive her tickets. But they never came. "I tried contacting the first seller several times to obtain tracking information, but I never heard from him again," she says. The same thing happened with the second seller.
Buying tickets that don't exist from fraudsters is one of the most common online scams, and one that people increasingly fall for as it gets easier to send payments online to strangers. But fortunately for consumers, it's also relatively easy to protect yourself, as long you follow some basic security protocols. These eight tips will help keep you, and your money, safe:
1. Think like a scam artist. Linda Webb, aka "the fraud dog," a fraud expert based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says tapping into the mind of a fraudster sheds light on the red flags to avoid. "Fraudsters look for a need - an event that is sold out or a cool toy at Christmas time that is sold out at department stores - and they market to that need," she says. If someone claims to have 100 sold-out toys that they're selling on eBay, for example, that sets off her fraud-alert radar.
2. Refuse to be rushed. Scam artists also try to hurry their victims into making a decision. "It's a sense of urgency to act now - 'I've only got 10 tickets, and you have to do it now or you're not going to get them,'" Webb says. If an online stranger is trying to rush you into a purchase decision, then take that as a warning sign that you might be getting hustled.
3. Make it personal. Before transferring funds to anyone online, Webb suggests setting up a phone call, so you talk to the person and find out more details such as their name, how they managed to score sold-out tickets and where they live. "Especially in today's world, it's easy to duplicate tickets," she warns. You want to do what you can to verify that the tickets are legitimate.
4. Meet in person if possible. While Craigslist did not respond to an interview request for this story, the website posts advice on avoiding scams online. It's top tip? "Deal locally with folks you can meet in person," Craigslist states, adding that if you follow that rule, you'll avoid 99 percent of scams.
Webb herself uses Craigslist as long as she can conduct the business in person. "I've purchased items on Craigslist, but I've only done it locally when I can meet the person, see the item, bring cash and make the transaction," she says. She adds that she only meets in public locations, like a grocery store parking lot, and she always brings a friend with her for added protection.
5. Don't wire money. Craigslist also warns that if a seller asks you to send money through Western Union, MoneyGram or any other wire service, the person is "likely a scammer." One common scam has an alleged buyer overpay for an item, and then asks the victim (the seller) to send a partial refund. Because the original payment is fake, the victim ends up wiring back their own money to the scam artist.
6. Use payment methods that come with protection. Unlike wire services and other payment methods, PayPal comes with buyer protection policies. In a statement to U.S. News, the company said, "When merchants violate PayPal's policies, we do take actions to investigate and restrict their accounts if necessary." Buyers can get reimbursed for their full purchase price plus shipping costs. Just be sure to report the problem within 45 days.
7. Be extra cautious with hard-to-get items. Echoing Webb's advice, PayPal urges users to take extra steps to verify sellers' authenticity when dealing with rare or expensive items, including tickets, jewelry and memorabilia.
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8. Guard your personal information. PayPal warns against sharing personal financial information online with strangers, downloading attachments that could harm your computer and logging into your PayPal account via hyperlinks that might take you to fake websites. Fake emails from PayPal might address you as "Dear PayPal user," while the real PayPal always uses your first and last name (or business name used on the account), the company says.
As long as you take these steps to protect yourself, you can shop - and sell - online without worrying too much about getting scammed. Diana, the mother of three who wanted the Thomas tickets, got her money back after filing a dispute with PayPal. But she didn't get what she really wanted, which was tickets for her sons to see their favorite train. Next time, she says she'll stick to using her local mom's list and other more personal sources when trying to land last-minute tickets.