Craig’s List’s Dirty Little Secret: Who’s Policing the Flagging Police?

by Roberta Piket on February 16, 2011

in Messages from the Owner

Most of our new business now comes from referrals from current clients. It works out great for everyone. Our clients feel that they are helping their friends and colleagues (and supporting a small business they believe in) by recommending a reliable and trustworthy service company, and we benefit from getting a new client that already feels good about working with us before we even meet.

When we first started out about six years ago, we didn’t have enough clients to generate a substantial number of referrals, and we didn’t have an advertising budget. So we relied on free Craig’s List ads to get started. At that time, we generated a lot of business through Craig’s List. Many of those initial clients who came to us through CL are still with us today, and they in turn have referred us to many other clients. So the roots of our business are really in those early Craig’s List ads.

Not everyone has had as much success on Craig’s List. I think we did a few thing right with those early ads. First, we didn’t try to compete on price. On CL you can always find someone offering to do the job cheaper. Rather, we presented ourselves as a professional, reliable company with honest, knowledgeable techs. Craig’s List at that time provided an amazing opportunity for an individual with skills and integrity to bootstrap herself into a business with literally no start-up capital.

Unfortunately something awful has been happening on CL. I only discovered this because our office assistant asked me if she should start posting our ads to Craig’s List again. I had stopped about a year ago, because I didn’t have time to post the ad every three days. I also felt that we had outgrown Craig’s List. While we got some great customers there, there were also a lot of time-consuming calls from price-shoppers.

(There’s nothing wrong with being a price shopper. I’m always looking for a good deal. But if price is all you are looking for when it comes to computer repair and services, you end up paying more in the long run.)

Anyway, I decided, what the heck, let’s run the ad again. That’s when I discovered that Craig’s List has been taken over by a handful of self-appointed police who flag ads arbitrarily. Anyone can get an ad deleted on Craig’s List by flagging it a couple of times from different ip addresses (say, work and home). There is no recourse, no higher authority to appeal to. Your ad is gone and, aside from a curt email notification, that’s the end of it. Try re-posting, and you’re likely to get deleted again, except now that you’ve been flagged once, you’re penalized: one flag is enough to immediately delete your ad.

Okay, I hear you saying. Maybe a few ads get deleted that shouldn’t. But don’t we need these good souls who volunteer their time to protect us from the psychos and perverts who would otherwise overrun Craig’s List? Isn’t Craig’s List all about the members of the community watching out for each other?

Well, that would be fine if there were a large number of CL readers who, while perusing ads, noticed a bad one on occasion and flagged it. (Here’s an example of one that should have been caught, but wasn’t: http://www.switched.com/2008/03/25/fake-craigslist-ad-costs-man-most-of-what-he-owns/).

Instead, the original community-based ideal of CL has been turned upside down by a tiny minority of self-appointed “volunteers” who routinely flag large numbers of perfectly acceptable ads either because they find them personally offensive, or because that’s how they get their kicks.

Since this was the same ad I had been running for several years without a problem, I decided to follow the advice in the “flag notification” email, and visit the “flagging forum”, where you can supposedly receive guidance about what characteristics might have caused your ad to be deleted.

Here, the anonymous CL police, who hide behind aliases such as “Dudley_Do_Right”, recently offered the following explanations as to why various ads were deleted:

An ad from a small farm selling show animals:

I detest ads that start with questions …You are only mocking me by putting them there. I flag what is mocking me.

A car ad:

Ugly color probably. People hate that!

An ad selling a motor home:

Perhaps a site geard [sic] towards this type of luxury is more appropriate.

Lest you think I’m cherry-picking, these posts were all placed within a day or so of each other. As one distraught flagging victim posted so eloquently:

I’ve learned quite a bit about the “flagging culture” here on CL and got a good sense of the types of people who troll the cl – flag help board… I came in thinking there were a set of rules and guidelines that needed to be adhered to…. I was hoping there could be a civilized discussion regarding the guidelines for posting…but I realize now that’s not going to happen.

A frequent comment from the chronic flaggers is that you, the victim of flagging, have no right to complain because your ad is free. Of course, if it weren’t for free ads, there would be no Craig’s List. Besides, you’re not getting a “free ad” if it’s deleted. You’re just wasting your time.

Nor does the concept that free ad posters have no rights serve the interests of those reading the ads. In service categories (such as computer services), it is easy for an unscrupulous company to delete their competition’s ads through flagging. (In fact I suspect that’s what happened to our ad.) It’s also the unscrupulous posters who use illegitimate techniques to get around the rules. Those methods are available for those who are motivated to make a career out of scamming people on Craig’s List. This means that there are fewer “good guys” left on CL, and more scammers. That’s not good for anyone. But the flagging police don’t care about Craig’s List. They’re getting high on the power trip, and like most drug addicts, they can’t be bothered to think about the consequences.

Even the self-appointed flaggers, when pressed, will frequently admit that the ad in question does not violate the Craig’s List Terms of Service or any other written rules of Craig’s List (including over-posting and miscategorization). This response is typical, but incorrect: “The Terms of Use say that users can flag for any reason”.

Without Craig’s List, I’m not sure I would have gotten New York Geek Girls to the point where we no longer need Craig’s List. It’s regrettable for those who do need CL. Especially in this economy, with rampant unemployment, people who are trying to find a way to earn a living, sell a household item or just meet people need a place to advertise without getting shut down arbitrarily by power-drunk zealots.

I understand the community-based philosophy behind Craig’s List. I also understand that Craig’s List’s owners (who include Ebay), make a lot of money from the paid real estate and jobs ads and don’t want to devote resources to the part of their site that doesn’t directly generate income. But if they don’t do something to reign in these crazies, the good posters will disappear from Craig’s List, and when all those free ads disappear, so do the eyeballs that the income-producing parts of the site need. When that happens, it’s goodbye Craig’s List.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Curry March 2, 2011 at 6:48 am

I couldn’t agree more… I believe competitive flagging will spell the end of Craigslist and the openness that grew the website in the first place has been lost.

Reply

Roberta Piket March 2, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Thank you for your feedback.

Reply

Beto June 16, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Yes, you are 100 % right, I been having this same problem for two months now. I am been flagged by the competition, I contacted the “Help Forum” and all I get is “Your ad looks spammy” or “98% of ads are deleted” after changing my ad several times and verifying my account over the phone.

They have all these features to “prevent” abuse but apparently there is no problem or conflict of interest when the “Community” does not have to be register in order to flag post. After talking to these people on several occasions that I realized what was really going on.

These people are basically CL monopolized for their own personal agenda and sadly it will continue until since ALL complaints are falling into deaf ears. CL web site has not been updated in ages and obviously these guys are making big profits since the systems is working in their favor.

Lets hope that some real competition stands up to craigslist and you will see a flock of users migrating over, until then, the boat will slowly sink.

There is a petition going on around the web, feel free to sign it like I have, hopefully enough people sign it to make a difference.

http://goo.gl/APoYo

Thank You for this article!
🙂

Reply

Roberta Piket June 20, 2011 at 12:07 am

Thank YOU for providing the petition link. I just checked the link and it is legitimate. I signed and I hope others will sign as well.

Reply

Judann August 16, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Enjoyed your article so much. Probably because it substantiated my own opinion and experience with Craig’s List and their “Help Desk.”

Unfortunately, the List is losing value rapidly. In our category, there are at least 4 companies that post several ads in a row several times a day. It is impossible for a small company to have much exposure and attempts to keep up with the professional spammers results in flagging and removal. Despite being flagged and reported repeatedly, these companies continue to hog the category.

Additionally, it is aggravating to the real consumer who may be comparing prices and services to open ads that are all for the same company over and over again. I truly believe that fewer and fewer people will continue to utilize at least our category because it has become so time consuming.

I, unfortunately, did go to the “help desk” to see what could be done and, not being a masochist, I will never go there again. Not only was I, along with numerous others, insulted personally, but some seeking help were cussed at.

Thank you for a well written and insightful article.

Reply

l.l. December 2, 2012 at 7:28 am

as i mentioned below. the ones doing this are evil the core, they get enjoyment out of it. it is their hobby and past time and for many it is their life and what they do all day long, their job is hurting people and making them beg and cower. i would say some are miserable zeros who are jealous and envious. the others are manipulative evil controllers who have no power in life, except maybe over children or animals. they are abusive and sadistic and should have power in this life over anything. in the real world they are nobodies and no one listens to them and that really bothers them. on CL they are the iron fist of satan and they love the thrill they get to punch down someone who is happy successful positive and good. the only way to control them is make their evil cost them money or make it not anonymous (cause they will run for the darkness and hate the light where their deeds are exposed). they do not want to pay for their evil or have it swing their way, they are hypocrites in every-way and afraid of facing their victims because they are cowards and want to remain falsely clean.

Reply

Roberta Piket December 2, 2012 at 8:52 pm

Perhaps a bit more apocalyptic than I would have phrased it, but I think you have the right idea. 🙂

Reply

jmm December 13, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Craigslist is an example of what happens when the “community” is allowed to police itself without professional oversight. As you experienced, even the Craigslist “help” forum for flagging has been overrun by sarcasm and people with nothing better to do than troll for hours at a time.

Clearly there is room for serious competition. I’d much rather use classifieds that are professionally managed by a helpful staff, and pay for the service if necessary.

Reply

Harry December 26, 2011 at 8:57 pm

I just wrote about this (http://harrylove.org/those-flagging-ads-on-craigslist) and then went searching to see if anybody else had experienced the same. Your article is on the first page of results for “craigslist illegitimate flagging.”

I’m glad I’m not alone. There should be a support group for us somewhere. I haven’t been belittled like that in a long time. It feels like the whole forum was outsourced to Mrs. Kendall’s 7th grade home room class. “If you’re bored children let’s learn about commerce…”

Reply

Buzz February 10, 2012 at 8:55 pm

Ran into it today. A real eye opener. They’ve handed the keys to the asylum to the lunatics. People flagging because they think the price is too high, flagging becasue a job offer is too far, in my case flagging because I wanted item to go to charity. I will certainly share my experience with anyone who will listen.

Reply

Roberta Piket March 25, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Thanks for all the great comments. See my follow-up post on this topic:
http://www.nygeekgirls.com/?p=809

Reply

l.l. December 2, 2012 at 7:10 am

i have experienced all this over the last 4 yrs on craigslist and have several horrific tales i could tell about this and other aspects but it would take too long. first i think all listings on CL should be paid for an un-flaggable. even at a dollar per ad they could make a mint and provide a much better site and platform. i would buy at least 100 listing per month. the action would end the need for any flags of any kind because it would end overposting, spam, miscategorizing, posting frequency, post to other locales, duplicates, etc. if someone pays to place an ad they must follow the set rules or loose their money (craigslist will have money to police the site and since money is to be lost there will be no rule breakers). second if someone wants to buy 30 ads for their business and post them all in the same day … so be it, they paid for it. everyone controls their own destiny. eliminate the by owner and by deal categories, everyone who pays get the same exposure.
the games ebay plays with undefinable search order/exposure and preference to certain sellers with impossible success is turning ebay into a flea market full of crooks. it seems it not a fair playing field and the cards are stacked against the sellers, just like craigslist is become. as i said i have horror stories of my own but the sooner we convince CL to end the flagging process by charging for the listing the better off businesses and all sellers will be.
as to the flagger all i can say is the mental illness and evil of some people is shocking. the jealousy envy thievery hatred cruelty and evil is rampant. when you let people like that walk on the users of the site deciding which items will be allowed to sell (items that make them feel good about themselves instead of cheap, low end, unsophisticated, users, snatchers, thieves, rip offs which the are), you take it down to zero. all the best people leave and they take their great items with them. only the low end or people giving great items away will be allowed on and will survive. that turns CL into a junk heap. and the buyers of great stuff go away too, as they do not want the under $100 junk that survives the flagging. as much as i think CL is great, i still wish it would crumble to the ground of crooks and thieves. let the evil flaggers push around other people like themselves who are evil and let all the great items go to other sites with better futures and better shoppers.

Reply

Roberta Piket December 2, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Not sure I agree with the idea of making all users pay. There are paid sections (such as real estate ads in NYC) on the site. The free ads bring in more traffic and raise awareness of the site. IMO that should be reason enough to spend some of the income from the paid sections to implement and maintain a better flagging system where chronic flaggers are blocked by IP address.

Reply

kevin April 11, 2013 at 4:33 pm

I think if your ad is placed in the proper category you shouldnt have much problems. I guess id be considered a “flagger” , ive been using craigslist for years and now all the dealers(referring to the electronics/car audio section) flood the owners category making it to where you cant even find real people selling items.. im not against dealers/shops posting their ads but if i click the “by owner” section i expect to see owners not shops/dealers..

Reply

Roberta Piket April 11, 2013 at 7:19 pm

That clearly wasn’t the case in the type of flagging that people are are finding problematic. You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.

Reply

terry July 7, 2013 at 9:32 pm

You have made a number of errors in your post. While it is quite true that the flag help forum is overrun by trolls, so is every other forum on CL. The inflammatory quotes that you posted are intended to push buttons. The likelihood that they are actually the same people that flagged your post is nil. They are just looking for a fight. That’s what trolls do. And there are probably only one or two of them. Trolls are perfectly happy to flame their own alternate identities if they can’t bait anyone else into their nets.

Secondly, it takes a lot more than one or two flags to bring a post down. Organized flaggers are usually commercial competitors. Finding enough unique IP addresses to flag an ad from is just too much work for anyone else. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and try it.

Also, your assumption that ads which have been previously flagged are therefore automatically removed if they are re-posted (or require fewer flags than new posts) is completely false. In fact, I bet the “curt email” you received about your post being flagged said right in it that you should re-post if you felt your ad had been flagged in error, and was in compliance with the Terms of Use.

There have been unofficial flagging forums, where users could post URLs of violating ads for others to flag. The ads flagged were predominantly weapons or drugs sales, prostitution ads with explicit photos, pedophiliacs, and flagrant spammers..Posting a URL in these forums did not guarantee anyone else would flag it – others had to agree that it was an issue, so they stayed pretty mainstream as to what was actually flagged. Business owners who tried to get others to spam their competitors on some pretext were spotted immediately and run out of the forum.

While CL did not endorse these forums, they didn’t shut them down either (they lived in random corners of CL). In some cases, CL even implemented registered-user only posting at the request of a majority of forum users, so they clearly felt these forums were doing more good than harm.

I refer to these forums in the past tense because they were as vulnerable to trolling issues as every other forum, and typically imploded in less than a year. I just ran a search, and couldn’t find a currently active flagging forum.

I have helped out at times on the (official) flag help forum, taking pity on poor novices who get jumped all over by trolls when they are only seeking information. In the vast majority of cases, the ad that someone thought was perfectly legitimate did in fact violate CL Terms of Service. The most common violations by people who really didn’t know better are listing in the wrong category, listing in multiple categories or locations, posting too frequently, posting prohibited items, omitting vital information, or keyword spamming.

At least half of those who post to the flagging help forum (in my region, anyhow) know perfectly well that they are violating the TOU. They posted anyway because they didn’t agree with the rules, and then blamed flaggers when they got caught. I have no sympathy for those people. I personally will not patronize businesses that abuse CL posting privileges, and if they are particularly extreme, may contact them to tell them why they lost my business.

Did you post in the services category, under the computer sub-category? If you posted anywhere else, your ad would be considered spam under the TOU, and would have been rightly flagged.

If you did post in the right category and in only one location, not too frequently, with only appropriate keywords, and got flagged anyway, it was almost certainly by business competitors. You can find hackers peddling this service all over the internet. CL staff is locked in a never-ending battle to keep one step ahead of them, but there is only so much they can do.

In contrast to trolls, these are usually lone individuals who keep a low profile, since they are also violating the craigslist terms. It sucks to be targeted by such a person, but just be patient and keep re-posting and eventually they’ll get tired of it and/or go out of business. They are probably marginal already if they have time to flag other people’s ads!

Reply

Roberta Piket July 12, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Contrary to your implication, I did not cherry-pick those quotes. They were quite easy to find as there are multitudes of them.

My posts did not violate the terms of service, and the forum posts and my experience (as well of that of countless other users) indicate that many posts are flagged for reasons having nothing to do with the ToS or ToU.

If “business competitors” can so easily play such dirty tricks then it is too easy to flag on CL. Period. Kind of proves my whole point.

Nothing else in your comment contradicts anything I’ve said. I’m glad you don’t find CL forums being “overrun by trolls” (your words) problematic. I do.

Reply

Fed up September 9, 2013 at 3:48 am

I just went on the flagging “help” forum. (I use the term loosely.) I’m running a fundraiser – just me – for my niece and her family. I was accused of spamming because I have 35 items for sale that I “posted in 2 days”. Actually, I renewed them all at once but I only post a few at a time. One troll said my prices were too high. Another said I scrambled my phone number and it “looked scammy”. (I did so to avoid bots gathering my number. Paranoid maybe but so what?) There was a lot more stupid reasoning but, finally, I wrote:
I withdraw my question. I’ve found the answer. Some very small people get on a power trip by assigning themselves the duty of “Craigslist Inspector General”. Pitiful…
Oh, well. Hopefully my fundraiser can survive…

Reply

Chuck March 15, 2015 at 4:54 pm

Your article was very insightful. Many thanks for writing it. I’ve been helping my girlfriend maintain her Craigslist account. It was flagged trolled so bad for no appropriate reason. I tried to get some honest help and was met by some various loathsome and immature individuals in the flag help forum. It was awful. Such trolling will most likely force her to take down her Craigslist site soon.

Reply

Leave a Comment

WordPress Anti-Spam by WP-SpamShield

{ 1 trackback }