Craigslist: The Crucifixion of Craig and the End of Free

Editorial: It’s time to stop letting “free” be a shield for anonymous criminal behavior at a wide array of major sites, including eBay, Yahoo and Google.
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Editorial: It’s time to stop letting “free” be a shield for anonymous criminal behavior at a wide array of major sites, including eBay, Yahoo and Google.

If there was a shopping mall in your town where it was your responsibility to protect yourself from crooks and thieves, whom everyone acknowledged were lurking in plain view, would you shop there?

And if you were a legitimate merchant at that mall, wouldn’t you want to crack down on the crooks, instead of just tolerate them or even encourage them?

The sad thing about the state of the evolution of e-commerce is that we’ve reached the point where, in much of the consumer-oriented side of the Web, current Internet consumer business models have become irretrievably poisoned by the scammers, crooks and grifters who have turned the Internet into a vast criminal network, aided, willingly and unwillingly, by many of our favorite Internet brands.

Those brands are, in my opinion, more at risk than they care to acknowledge, mostly because they’re so busy racking up eyeballs and page views they’ve lost any sense of a moral compass. The most egregious is eBay, which successful fought a lawsuit in the U.S. by Tiffany that basically left it up to Tiffany to pack heat and protect itself, and its customers, from the thugs lurking on eBay.

Over in Europe, the courts are more willing to force eBay to function as a responsible merchant, but those decisions seem to be the exception that proves the rule.

eBay is hardly alone. Yahoo and Google provide aid and comfort to crooks and thieves in the form of free email – the equivalent of a gun and a getaway car – with zero sense of responsibility for what is unleashed on businesses and individuals by these free services. Paypal lends its brand to crooks who collect funds from legitimate customers. And on and on.

What prompted this rant were my two most recent experiences with Craigslist, one of the poster sites of free Internet commerce services and now a den of criminal activity of the worst kind. In both cases – that’s 100% of the time – I used Craigslist in the last month, someone tried to scam me.

In the latest, and most ingenious example, a Nigerian scammer scraped the address off of a posting my wife placed for a home we rent, and then posted his own for-rent ad, undercutting our price (for our own property!) by 30% and then trying, almost successfully, to convince eager bargain-hunting renters to send a money-order to Nigeria for the first and last month’s rent.

Okay, anyone naïve enough to send a money order to Nigeria deserves what they get, right? Caveat emptor and all that rot.

But, in the wake of the utter devastation of our housing and mortgage banking system by an organized, and legitimate, cadre of swindlers who took advantage of people’s naiveté, is caveat emptor the only thing we as a society can do about scammers?

Isn’t there something called a social contract that behooves us to do more than just shrug our shoulders and say “There but for fortune go I?”

To his credit, Craig Newmark responded immediately, as he always does, to my personal email to him about the problem. I know in my heart of hearts he’s concerned, and rightfully so, about the scammers on his site.

To a large degree, I consider him a victim, not a perpetrator, of the mayhem that’s occurring on Craigslist every day. And his professed altruism about why he launched Craigslist – and he’s clearly not in it for the money – is refreshingly sweet in an otherwise for-profit e-commerce world.

But I also have to wonder about whether Craig really thinks that the fraud squad he has deployed at the end of an email address and the warnings – posted all over his ads – about how to deal with scammers are really any solution at all. Judging from my recent experience, they’re worth a hill of beans, and that’s about all.


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Tags: Google, services, consumer, Yahoo


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