My friends nearly got scammed trying to buy an Airstream.
A dentist I know nearly got scammed.
A cousin nearly got scammed.
These were all intelligent, capable people who you wouldn't expect could get drawn in by scam artist. But in each case, the only reason they didn't lose their money is because they asked me what I thought about the Airstream they were about to purchase.
The dentist was on the way to the bank to get a bank check for $5,000 to purchase a "bargain" Airstream he found on Craigslist when I managed to reach him.
My friends were already talking about where in the backyard they'd put the Airstream that they found for only $1,200 (see actual email below).
So I don't assume that smart, successful, mature, or wealthy people are immune to the charms of an Internet scam. It can happen to anyone.
You've probably already got an Airstream, but that doesn't mean you or someone you know might fall for the psychological ploys the scammers use. Who wouldn't be tempted to pick up a nice 2005 Airstream International 16-footer from a desperate seller for a mere $1,200?
You might try to protect yourself by looking for the hallmarks of a scam:
- factual errors in the description
- the seller tries to rush you
- sob stories about dead husbands, poor health, or military deployments
- suspicious email addresses
- reluctance to talk on the phone
- seller says you can't inspect in person until after money is sent
- changes in the name or email address of the seller.
These are all good hints, but I think it's risky to rely on subjective appraisals of a seller's communications. A really smooth operator might be able to come up with a story that seems completely believable.
It would also be easy to detect a fake ad if you knew a lot about Airstreams. You can spot factual errors and odd points in the descriptions, because they are often copied from some website. For example, look what the email above said:
"Length 16, Sleeping Capacity 4, Air Conditioners 1, Slide Outs 1. Water Capacity 6, Toilet." Who writes like that?
That sentence alone is riddled with glaring factual errors. The photos show a 19-foot Airstream and of course it doesn't have a slide-out. An RV'er will know that there is more than one "water capacity" (black tank, grey tank, fresh tank, and water heater). But if you're not knowledgeable about Airstreams, you might not notice these things.
There are easier ways to avoid a scam, which I've distilled down to five simple rules. Keep these in mind so you can be ready to save a friend or relative when they excitedly tell you they're about to buy their first Airstream for a bargain price.
Rule #1: Never send money for an Airstream you can't touch first
This is the most important thing. Unless you or someone you trust has personally touched the Airstream first, DO NOT SEND MONEY.
Photos are not an adequate substitute for putting your hands on the actual Airstream. Scammers steal photos of other peoples' Airstreams and present them as their own. So don't even put down a deposit until you are sure the seller is legit and the Airstream is in their possession.
If you want to quickly verify that the seller actually has an Airstream to sell, just ask them to send you a photo of something random and hard to fake (like today's newspaper, or a watch set to 1:36 pm, or the seller making a peace sign) inside the Airstream.
Scammers will give you an excuse when you ask for photo proof: The Airstream is either "in storage" or somewhere else that the seller can't get to. Often they claim to be stationed overseas or in dire straits. It's always a lie.
Even if you get the photo, you'll still want to physically inspect the Airstream before buying, or have someone qualified do it for you.
Rule #2: Don't fall for an unbelievable price
The old axiom "If it's too good to be true, it probably is" gets overlooked when eager buyers don't know the value of an Airstream. My friends didn't realize that $1,200 was far too cheap for a 2005 Airstream International 16 in immaculate condition (it's worth about $30k in today's market). Until they stumbled over this one on Craigslist they had never thought about Airstream prices.
That's what the scammers count on. They want you to be so excited by the low price that you don't bother to do any research. You're supposed to think "I'd better jump on this deal before somebody else does," and run to send that Western Union payment.
Airstreams are hot commodities at any time, and especially now. Nobody needs to discount a used Airstream by 95% in order to sell it.
Rule #3: Never send untraceable money, even to an "escrow service"
Requests to be paid by Western Union, MoneyGram, Venmo, Zelle, PayPal, gift cards, wire transfer, or other form of untraceable payment before you take possession are always scams. Without exception. The moment you get such a request, STOP.
A classic ploy by scammers is to offer to use an escrow service to "assure a fair deal" or some other such hogwash. Often they make up some realistic-sounding service like "PayPal Escrow" or "eBay Escrow" but it's always fake. Once you send money to the "escrow service" you'll never see it again (or the mythical Airstream). You can see a typical example here.
Deal directly with the seller, always. Hand over the payment when you pick up the Airstream, and you won't need an escrow service.
Rule #4: Never accept money from a seller
Sometimes the scammer doesn't intend to get you to complete the sale. They might try to get you to pay "the shipper" or "the escrow fee" or a "lawyer" with money that they send you. A week or two after you pay the fee, you'll find the supposedly certified check the seller sent you is bogus, and the bank will pull the money back out of your account. You'll be on the hook for the full amount.
Don't fall for sob stories about how the seller needs you to pay some expense because they can't. Anytime a seller offers to send you money, it's a scam.
Rule #5: Don't hesitate to walk away
Scammers rely on FOMO—Fear Of Missing Out. They know it's hard for you to walk away from a deal that smells a little funky, because you'll be thinking "what if I miss out on an incredible deal?"
Don't let FOMO drive you to make a huge mistake. If you see the hallmarks of a scammy deal, it is a scammy deal. Put your money back in your pocket and be glad you still have it. If you're advising a friend, handcuff them to a post if you have to. That way they'll still have some money to spend when a real Airstream comes along.