The "please read before hiring" warnings litter the ads on the local ride-share page on Craigslist.
"Warning dangerous felon," one reads. "Predator/stalker … scammer Thomas (Beware ladies)," another says.
Most messages on the Tampa Bay area of the site warn of two men — Thomas Lieupo, 38, and Paul Gordon, 45 — and use nearly identical language to say the men have been arrested in Hillsborough County for "rape and molesting girls." The posts include the men's phone numbers and mug shots.
Both men are felons, but records show neither has ever been arrested for a sex crime in Florida.
Instead, the earnest-sounding, but false warnings seem to be part of a cutthroat marketing strategy. When contacted by the Tampa Bay Times, Lieupo said he posted the warnings, sometimes a dozen each day, in retaliation after Gordon posted similar things about him as a way to get more ride-share business for himself.
"People do that all the time on Craigslist," Lieupo said.
Gordon denied posting anything on the site. He once provided rides to people using Craigslist, he said, but stopped.
"I don't deal with Craigslist, but unfortunately I had my number put on there by an old enemy of mine," Gordon said.
Neither man said he was bothered by the ads.
Deputies, on the other hand, say they underscore the need for caution when it comes to conducting business transactions online, especially those that involve such a personal service as ride share. Police agencies often get reports about Craigslist sales gone wrong, and warn of sales scams that can end in robbery.
"If it appears too good to be true, question it," Pinellas County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Cristen Rensel said.
Rensel recommended doing online research on buyers and sellers when making any kind of transaction and staying alert to items or businesses that might seem suspicious.
A Craigslist ride share generally works like this: Someone traveling to, say, New York and looking to split the fare might post an ad looking for passengers. Or a passenger might post looking for a ride. The parties contact each other to agree on a price and travel time.
Lieupo makes his living on Craigslist. He drives people he finds on ride share around the bay area or further away, such as the airport in Orlando. He also uses Craigslist to attract customers to his computer and phone refurbishing business. He posts ads nearly every day from his Palm Harbor home.
In Hillsborough County, a woman complained to deputies because Lieupo didn't take her as far as she wanted to go during a ride share. No charges were filed.
"That's like someone buying a bike off Craigslist and not liking the condition it's in and calling us," Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Cristal Bermudez Nunez said.
Deputies generally don't do much to deal with false online claims "unless they start becoming aggravated stalking or cyberstalking," Nunez said. "That would have to be very significant where you're calling someone out specifically and contacting them through the site."
When callers contact Lieupo for a ride and are concerned about the messages they've seen, he gives them several references. He said they are women he has driven who can attest to his credibility.
Lieupo's real criminal record involves a 2006 conviction for battery and kidnapping, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records. A Pinellas County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman said he kept a woman from leaving a Largo residence.
He has been arrested twice on reckless driving charges. In one case, adjudication was withheld. The other case was dismissed. He also has been charged with DUI involving property damage and his license has been suspended and revoked multiple times.
"Everybody on Craigslist has a police background," Lieupo said. "That's why we're on Craigslist."
Gordon's background includes more than 20 arrests on charges such as burglary and aggravated assault to fraud, larceny and soliciting for prostitution. He served eight years in state prison and was released in 1996. He served another three years on fraud charges that ended in his release in July 2013.
At one point during an interview, Gordon said he had complained to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office about Lieupo's posts, which include several of his mug shots. However, he also denied using the site and said the messages didn't concern him at all.
Craigslist allows users to flag advertisements as inappropriate, and in general, Nunez said, websites are expected to handle those claims themselves.
"Making false claims — that's kind of all over the place on the Internet," Nunez said.
Contact Claire Wiseman at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @clairelwiseman.