Thursday, July 20, 2017

Avoiding Craigslist Scams

I've been thinking about buying an RV for quite a while, and I finally accumulated enough money in my savings account, so I started looking around to see what prices were like. I'm not looking for another bug-out vehicle; just something that I can load the wife into and do some travelling. It'd be nice to see friends who live in other parts of the country while maintaining control of my own security and being able to travel with things that would be difficult to take on an airplane. (Spam cans of ammo are heavy, firearms don't always make it to their destination via the airlines, and I trust the TSA about as far as I could throw one of them.) Having optional living quarters is also comforting when I start thinking about the various disasters that could keep me out of my house.

We have some well-established camper sales lots in my area, one of them having been in the same location for almost 60 years. I know people who work (or have worked) there, and I have dealt with a few of the companies over the years while repairing campers for friends. Buying a new camper is worse than buying a new car: the market is a lot smaller and there is less competition, so the sales-weasels will try to get you to buy way more than you'll need. I looked at some of the new prices -- I can buy a house in this area cheaper than some of the 5th-wheel trailers go for, and I'd have to buy a better truck to tow it with. The new Class A (self-contained and self-propelled) campers all start at more than I paid for my last two houses combined.

I'm getting close to retirement age, and most of my money is tied up in trying to get set to survive living without a daily job, so buying new is not an option. (Give me a few more years and the house will be paid off and I will be debt-free.) If you have a few tens of thousands of dollars laying around or don't mind taking out a loan (neither fits me), then a new camper, trailer, or motor home might be an option. For me, I knew I would be buying something used, probably needing repairs, and I needed to keep the price below $10,000. I started with Craigslist.

Craigslist is easy to navigate and a lot of people like it because it's free. Most listings have pictures (this is important) and a price in the title, and the search function on the left-hand side bar gives options like min/max price and distance from your location. There are warnings about scams at the bottom of the page, but those don't go far enough. The scammers are looking for three things; your money, your contact information, and your personal data. If they can just take your money, they will. If they can't do that, they'll be looking to steal your identity or at least add your contact information to the files of other thieves. Some people are too trusting, and there are always jackals out there looking for some way to get money without having to work for it. Here's what I ran into and how I learned to avoid the scammers.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Nobody is going to sell a five-year-old RV for a couple of thousand dollars. Nobody is going to deliver an RV (more than a few miles) for free. One scammer told me they'd deliver an RV from 1200 miles away for just the cost of gas. That fails the smell test, since they'd be eating all of the lodging and meals for travel both ways.

Read the Ad Carefully
One of the warnings that Craigslist offers is “buy local”. If you are looking at an ad in a local Craigslist and it doesn't have at least a city listed, it's probably a scam. None of the sellers that I contacted who didn't have a location in the ad were local.

Compare Prices
Looking at other used RV selling sites will give you an idea of what RVs similar to the one you're looking at are selling for. There are so many brands, models, and options available that it is unlikely you'll find an exact duplicate, but you'll find something close. Rvtrader is a site with a lot of listings, so it is likely you'll find something similar to what you're looking at. RVT is another option with 100k listings for variety.

Look At the Pictures
If you see text over the picture that isn't advertising a dealership, it's probably a scam. I use a browser add-on called Tineye to reverse-search images that I find on the internet. If the same picture is being used for listings in multiple states, it's a scam. A lot of scammers grab pictures from legitimate RV dealerships and use them in their ads, so watch for other ads to pop up in the results. Google offers a reverse-search option for images that works, but isn't as convenient.

Sharpen Your Search Skills
There are a few online sources of average prices for used RVs, with NADA being the most respected. They are the “Blue Book” that you'll hear referred to in used vehicle ads.

If there is a phone number in the listing, look at the area code and see if it is local to the area. I'm in a fairly sparsely-populated state, so I only have to deal with a half-dozen area codes within 200 miles in any direction. A lot of larger cities have that many many area codes just within the city limits. Internet searches for phone numbers aren't very useful anymore, because they all want payment for any information and a few of the cell phone companies don't even release their data to the public.

Have a Good Spam Filter On Your Email
Craigslist offers an anonymous email option for contacting sellers; use it! Don't give out your actual email address until you have made some effort to make sure you're not dealing with a scammer. Spam filters and throw-away email addresses will give the spammers something to play with. Gmail actually does a good job of filtering out the idiots, and I've noticed that hotmail and yahoo are getting better.

Exchanging Money
Once the scammer has you hooked, they are going to try to get your money. Western Union, wire transfers, money orders, gift cards, and fake escrow companies are the options to look out for. They are all one-way transfers, which means that once you have sent it, the money is gone; none of these options give you any recourse if the deal falls through or the product isn't as advertised. PayPal may be an option, and offers some options for disputing a sale. Be aware that eBay does NOT offer an escrow service, regardless of what a seller may tell you! I've dealt with eBay for 20 years, three of them as a seller, and I know their services quite well. (Check their FAQ here.) A legitimate escrow service will charge a fee for their services, so if you use one you need to negotiate who is going to pay that fee.

I prefer cash, but that has its own problems. Carrying large sums of cash to a location of the seller's choice is probably not a good idea. Practice situational awareness, have someone else with you for security, and walk or drive away if anything looks wrong. Banks will ask a lot of questions if you try to get anything over $1000 out of your accounts, due to federal anti-drug laws. I have a 30-year relationship with my bank and my banker is used to me dealing in cash, but if I hit a different branch I have to answer questions before they'll give me my own money. I've only had to complain once in those 30 years and my banker took care of it for me.

Titles and Paperwork
The best bet is to get a “clear” title: no liens, not stolen, with all of the required signatures in the right places, and nothing erased or covered with white-out will make your visit to the DMV/county tax station a lot easier. Be sure to  check your state laws, since they vary so much, on the different types of titles -- here in Iowa we have regular, salvage, and “prior salvage” titles. Once a vehicle has been damaged to the point where repairs will cost 50%+ of the value, you can get a salvage title. With a salvage title, you can't get it registered (license plates) or drive it on the road legally. Once repaired and inspected by a state official, we can apply for a “prior salvage” title and get it plated. You will not be likely to get a loan on any vehicle with anything other than a clean, regular title.

Any sale without a title is a problem. State laws vary, but to get a replacement title without a current registration in hand you're going to have to jump through some hoops. The DMV will have to do a title search, which gets tedious if they have to contact another state, and then determine that it wasn't reported stolen or totalled by an insurance company. Most states will try to contact the last owner to make sure it wasn't stolen. Then they will have to inspect it and issue a new title, which adds more delays. Unless you're buying an RV for parts, I'd avoid the hassles of buying one without a title.

I managed to find a motor home in my price range about an hour from home on Craigslist and will be writing more about it once I get it home. I need to get cash from the bank to pay for it, so it will be sometime this week before I drive it back and start working on it. It has some issues, but is mechanically sound and none of the damage is irrepairable.

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