How to Tell if a Craigslist Reply Is Legitimate or Spam

By Laurie Brenner

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark stands vigil against spam on his website.
i Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Craigslist offers users access to buy and sell online through free classified ads. When you access the website, it's important to protect your personal email from unscrupulous users who may spam you by offering fraudulent payments for your item. Craigslist uses a two-way email relay system meant to purposefully stop spam and scams. Even so, computer hackers and unscrupulous people can still spam you through Craigslist's email system.

Craigslist Spam

Unwanted commercial emails -- spam -- often includes bogus commercial offers that waste your time and steal your money. To stay protected on Craigslist, choose anonymity by clicking on the "Use Craigslist Mail Relay" button when you insert your email address in the appropriate field when posting an advertisement. Make certain that you add "cash only" in your advertisement. At the bottom of the ad posting, make certain the "OK for Others to Contact You About Other Services, Products or Commercial Interests" is not selected. Otherwise, you are asking that advertising emails be sent to you.

Email Relay

Craigslist protects both sellers and buyers on its website by encoding your personal email with one issued by Craigslist. For instance, a reply from a potential buyer through Craigslist would appear with a series of letters and numbers before the words "" As an example, you might receive a reply to your ad that looks like this: "[email protected]." But just because the person used Craigslist's internal email system to respond to your ad, the user still might be attempting to scam you.

Too Good to Be True

Bring your common sense to bear when utilizing any online classified program. Bottom line, if something in an email sounds too good to be true, pay attention to your instincts -- as you are more than likely right. Craigslist spammers and scammers try to draw you into their net by making you believe you have just received an incredible offer. Craigslist advises users to avoid scams and fraud by not accepting personal checks, money transfers via online wire services, cashier's checks or money orders, as these can all be faked. It also recommends avoiding deals that involve shipping or escrow services. One main rule when using Craigslist is to keep your transactions local where you can meet the person in a public place -- and have someone with you when you do.

The Legitimacy of the Offer

Legitimate offers usually come from someone in your area. Their email address will come from Craigslist itself as indicated previously and may include specific questions on the item. Someone honestly interested in your offering will want to know more details, ask if you are open to haggling or ask if the product has been sold yet. Illegitimate offers usually come from someone out of the area and ignore your request for "cash only" by suggesting another means to pay for the item.

Phishers and Scammers

Even with these protections in place, dishonest people still use the Craigslist system to spam people. Craigslist management constantly fights hackers who harvest emails from Craigslist's system or use malware to send spam to unwary users. To avoid problems with spammers, the FTC advises online buyers and sellers to select one email for online shopping and another for friends and personal use. Report any suspicious emails from the site to Craigslist via its contact form on the site. The U.S. Department of Justice also provides resources for reporting spam online (see Resources).