Like your parents used to say, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Although Craigslist is a great place to find almost anything, it is also a fertile breeding ground for scams.
And make no mistake, nowhere on Craigslist is that more true than the Homes for Rent section. As you are scrolling down the many (legitimate) listings for rentals, your eye catches the surprisingly inexpensive four-bedroom home in a that chic neighborhood. It gets even better: “No tenant credit check required!” It’s probably a scam.
There are a lot of rental scams out there, and most are surprisingly simple.
Consider a common identity theft scam: You click to contact the landlord to get more information. You receive a reply email asking you to complete an attached rental application (which includes your social security number and birthdate, no less) and send the file back. Because the file is simply a Word or PDF attachment, and not an online rental application through a legitimate web service, there are no protections in place for the renter.
Or perhaps a deposit scam: the landlord lets you know that the apartment is not available. “You will be the first notified should it become available.” A serving of disappointment with a dash of desperation. After a few hours, you get the email – that last applicant decided not to take the apartment. If you still want it, complete the application online and send a holding deposit of $X.
If those scams sound like something only a sucker would fall for, consider this more sinister fake-landlord scam. The scammer somehow obtains a copy of the key; perhaps by signing a lease themselves with a landlord foolish enough not to verify their tenant’s identity. Regardless, the scammer posts rental listings online, featuring a low asking rent. They dress respectably and show prospective renters around the property, and sign as many leases as they can within a three-week period, with a move-in date scheduled for the first of the next month. They collect the first month’s rent and security deposit from each prospective renter.
Then they disappear, and on the first of the next month a dozen people all show up to move in.
Looking for a vacation cottage at the beach? In my best Elmer Fudd impersonation: Be vewy, vewy careful. Perhaps you live in New York and would like to vacation on the West Coast. It would be expensive to travel and look at vacation rentals in person. So you look at some pictures, read the description and voila! You are ready to plunk down a hefty deposit to reserve it from afar. Enter, scam.
You respond and kick off several email exchanges. You are so excited; you send the money order deposit or perhaps transfer the funds through an anonymous service like Bitcoin exchanges or adding money to a prepaid debit card. Now you wait for the days, weeks or even months to pass before you go on vacation.
When you get to your beautiful beachfront cottage in California, you find that it is already rented or worse: it doesn’t even exist.
These are real scenarios, and happen more often than you think. What is a person to do to ensure that they are not dealing with a scammer?
First, you can check public records on the Internet (where available) to be sure that the person claiming to own the property actually does. Second, you can use a specialty site for vacationers like Airbnb or VRBO, which add transparency through renter reviews and verifications. Third, never send money to anyone without evidence of whom they are. Ask for proof that they do own or manage the property you are considering.
You can also consider using a Realtor. They will help you avoid being scammed; it’s part of their job.
I’ve actually seen suspicious listings vanish when pressed. I have asked for proof for a vacation rental and sure enough, stopped hearing from the alleged owner. I am a Realtor in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area where my specialty is rentals. I have personally encountered many of these scams and have been able to steer clients clear.
If it looks like a duck, on Craigslist it may be a pig. So, be vewy, vewy, careful!♦
Had any nasty experiences with property scams? Any tips for renters or landlords, to help them avoid being scammed? Share the wealth!