Craigslist falls prey to saboteurs, crooks

April 09, 2006|By TRICIA BISHOP | TRICIA BISHOP,SUN REPORTER

A three-bedroom, 2 1/2 bath, two-level condo in Federal Hill with parking, storage, a rooftop deck, washer/dryer and central air for $1,200 per month? Could it be?

Nope.

The March 29 advertisement for an apartment on craigslist.org - fabulous pictures and all - seemed too good to be true. In the end, it was.

It turns out that the ad, originally placed by homeowner Les Kollegian with a much higher monthly rent, had been temporarily hijacked by a prankster. Its amenities were embellished, rent discounted and a new contact name and number stuck at the bottom, urging readers to call someone named Josh.

And they did - in droves.

"I got like 500 phone calls within an eight-hour period," said Josh, whose last name truly is Fake. "I think it was a hoax or a joke with one of my friends."

As advertising on Craigslist.org - the Internet site that offers free classifieds and discussion forums organized by city - has become more popular, so has abusing it.

In Massachusetts, people have been caught selling stolen goods and sexual favors on its pages. In Chicago, tenants-rights groups have accused Craigslist of allowing users to post ads that skirt fair-housing laws.

In Baltimore, the site has been misused to annoy people like Fake, post questionable apartment listings and lure readers to other Web pages under false pretenses.

Even the most successful and best-known Internet sites have been subjected to scammers and pranksters. In many instances, the first two W's of the World Wide Web could as easily stand for the "wild West," where the long arm of the law is weak and renegades roam free.

Scam artists routinely mimic legitimate Internet operations such as eBay and PayPal by sending out fake e-mails asking for account information or money.

Last year, Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopedia whose submissions come from volunteers, was compromised by a phony posting that erroneously linked a Tennessee journalist to the assassinations of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Just last week, police officers in Montgomery County's Germantown visited Northwest High School to warn teenagers to stop impersonating teachers and administrators on a popular Web site called Facebook.

"It is the efficiency, the fact that you can so quickly do something. You don't have to give it as much thought and don't have to put as much energy in it," said Nancy Hensler-McGinnis, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, who has spent the last year researching Internet stalking.

"There's some connection between if it can happen in the click of a button, it must not be that serious."

Craigslist makes its money charging for employment ads in a few select cities. It has been widely praised for its ease of use, lack of censorship and hometown feel. Founded by Craig Newmark in 1995, the site has become a strong challenger to more traditional forms of classified advertising such as newspapers, for everything from outgrown baby clothes to job postings.

The housing ad that Les Kollegian placed and that was later altered was actually the second incident to target Fake, a consultant for a Glen Burnie information technology company.

The first was an ad for a Honda Civic that landed on craigslist.org about 11:30 one night last month, the same day the housing ad was altered. Car shoppers started calling 10 minutes later and didn't stop until 2 a.m., when Fake finally chucked his cellphone across the room and broke it.

Fake doesn't know who his tormentor is but vows "to get them back tremendously."

"I've never heard of anything like that, that's so crazy," Kollegian, the apartment owner, said when he was told how his ad had been doctored. "There's so many incidences of hacking," said Kollegian, whose condo was still unrented last week. "I really don't have much to say about it. It didn't really affect me, personally."

Others say improper and even illegal postings on craigslist.org, which has more than 10 million users per month on its various city sites, can have more damaging effects.

In February, a Chicago civil rights organization filed a lawsuit against the company, claiming it had published 100 illegal housing advertisements that excluded potential tenants on the basis of race, gender, family and marital status, national origin and religion.

Advertisements stressed "no minorities," asked for "Godly Christian males," or said children weren't allowed.

Discriminatory housing advertisements "do substantial harm to people," said Laurie Wardell, an attorney with the group that filed the lawsuit, the Chicago Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "The people who are excluded from housing are stigmatized and obviously discouraged from seeking housing. The ads also mislead the public to think that it is lawful to discriminate."

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