craigslist rent scams

In case you weren’t aware, rental fraud is rampant in the housing market. You might be surprised to know that over 60% of renters in the U.S. encounter frauds like fake landlords. In 2022 alone, the FBI reported estimated losses of $396 million due to real estate fraud. 

As your parents said, if it looks too good to be true, then 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, the Homes for Rent section on Craigslist is full of scams.

In this article, you’ll learn how: 

    • Craigslist rental scams are more common than you think. Scammers often lure victims with low prices to attract attention. 
    • Scammers found on Craigslist may pose as landlords, show rental properties, and sign multiple leases, collecting rent and deposits from unsuspecting renters. 
    • Arming yourself with the proper information is a great way to avoid getting scammed. If all else fails, you can get help from a professional real estate agent. 

Why Do People Post Fake Listings On Craigslist?

As a Realtor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where my specialty is rentals, I have extensive experience with rental scams, and I can help clients clear clear of these rackets. As a real estate professional, I can offer you a laundry list of reasons why people post fake rentals on Craigslist—none of them flattering—but it all boils down to one thing: money.

Scammers post fake Craigslist listings to steal deposits, gather personal information for identity theft, or lure victims to robberies. They take advantage of other people’s lack of awareness of how these things should go, and their need for a sturdy roof over their heads. 

The bottom line is that if there’s easy money to be made, no line is sacred, and no law is a complete deterrent. 

So, how do you avoid getting scammed? Well, first, let’s discuss the most common types of Craigslist rental scams. 

Common Types of Craigslist Rental Scams

As you scroll down the many (legitimate) listings for rentals, your eye catches the surprisingly inexpensive four-bedroom home in a chic neighborhood you found on Craigslist. It gets even better: “No tenant credit check required!” It’s probably a housing scam. 

There are a lot of rental scams or Craigslist scams out there, and most are surprisingly simple. 

Scam Type Description
Identity Theft Scams Scammers request sensitive personal information, such as social security numbers and birthdates.
Deposit Scams Fake landlords claim the apartment is unavailable and then request a holding deposit to secure it.
Fake Landlord Scams Scammers pose as landlords, obtain keys, and post fake rental listings with low rents.
Vacation Rental Scams Scammers offer vacation rentals, collect deposits, and provide no real property.

Identity Theft Scams

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 (including your social security number and birthdate) and return the document. 

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. 

Once you put in your info, you get… crickets. The “landlord” ghosts you. A bit rude, you might think, but you forget about it and move on to the next listing. 

A few months go by, and you get a call from some bank about overdue loan payments—the type of loan you are sure you’ve never even heard of. 

Unfortunately, you are now a victim of identity theft. 

Deposit Scams

A deposit scam typically happens like this: first, the landlord lets you know that the apartment or house for rent is NO LONGER AVAILABLE. 

“You will be the first notified should it become available,” they say, and it feels like a consoling digital pat on the shoulder—comforting but ultimately useless. 

So, dinner is a serving of disappointment with a dash of desperation, and you scroll through Craigslist looking for new listings. 

However, after a few hours, you get the email— the last applicant decided not to take the apartment. If you still want it, complete the application online and send a holding deposit of $X. Seems like somebody up there is looking out for you!

However, this is where the scam runs up to its finale.

The landlord will then ask you to wire the deposit with a shady payment method like crypto or gift card. This, unfortunately, makes it impossible to get your money back. 

They might also rush you to send the deposit ‘or else’ they’ll give the unit to another applicant. No legitimate landlord will pressure you like this, which is an immediate cause for suspicion.

If those scams sound like something only a sucker would fall for, consider this more sinister fake-landlord scam.

Fake Landlord Scams

According to a recent report, 1 out of 10 tenants in Detroit alone faces eviction after dealing with fake landlords. The report also says these scammers often face no legal consequences.

So, how does the scam work? Fake landlords somehow obtain 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, show prospective renters around the property, and sign as many leases as they can within three weeks, 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 a dozen people show up on the first of the next month to move in. All are confused—and all are victims. 

Trust me, these Craigslist scams get even worse.

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Vacation Rental Scam

Looking for a vacation cottage at the beach? In my best Elmer Fudd impersonation: Be vewy, vewy careful. Maybe you live in New York and want to take a 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’ve found your perfect getaway. You’re itching to plunk down a hefty deposit to reserve it from afar.  Enter the scammer. You respond to the listing and kick off several email exchanges with them. You are so excited; you send the money order deposit or transfer the funds through an anonymous service like Bitcoin exchanges or by adding money to a prepaid debit card. Then, you wait for the days, weeks, or even months to pass before you go on vacation.  And when you get to your beautiful rented beachfront cottage in California…you find someone else there. Or worse, it doesn’t even exist.

How Do You Spot A Rental Scammer On Craigslist?

Of course, the easiest way to avoid getting scammed on Craigslist is to know how to spot a scam. Watch out for fraudulent listings from these “landlords.” Red flags include:
    • Prices that seem too good to be true or way below market price
    • Vague locations lacking exact addresses
    • Duplicate ads for the same property
    • Owners who refuse to meet in person or come up with infinite excuses to put off scheduled meetings
    • Sob stories explaining vacancies
    • Requests for payment before seeing the unit
    • Unprofessional grammar/spelling mistakes. 

How Do You Avoid Rental Scams on Craigslist?

The scenarios mentioned above are real and happen more often than you think. Don’t believe me?  The United States has the highest number of rental scam cases worldwide. Specifically, Idaho took the crown for the highest rate of rental scams, with 3.68 cases for every 1 million people. Meanwhile, Arizona and Florida had the lowest rates, with 0.96 cases per 1 million people What should a person do to ensure they are not dealing with a scammer? Honestly, it’s not that complicated.
    • Verify Ownership: Some scammers claim to be the landlord or the property manager. That’s why it’s a good idea to check public records on the Internet (where available for potential renters) to be sure that the person claiming to own the property actually does. 
    • Use Legit Rental Sites: Interested renters can use a specialty site for vacationers like Airbnb or VRBO to avoid apartment scams. It also adds transparency through renter reviews and verifications. Listings on these specialty sites are more trustworthy than those on Craigslist.
    • Be Mindful of Requests For Details: One of the most effective ways to avoid getting scammed is to be careful with what you tell others. Craigslist scammers will often ask for details that aren’t necessary to the proceedings or ask you to go to some shady off-platform site to fill out your information.
    • Request Proof of Identity: Never send money to anyone without evidence of who they are. Always ask for proof that they own or manage the property you are considering. I’ve seen suspicious listings vanish when pressed. I’ve also asked for proof of a vacation rental and, sure enough, stopped hearing from the alleged owner.
Look for a Realtor: Consider using a real estate agent. They will help you find a place to live and avoid being scammed; it’s part of their job. Remember to find a reliable one, as scammers can pose as real estate agents.

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What Can You Do When You See Housing Scams?

Now that you know what to look out for when renting on Craigslist, it’s time to help out others. You can get back at Craigslist housing scams and scammers in a couple of ways.

Report The Craigslist Scam To The FBI

The FBI runs a website called the IC3, where people can report stuff like an ad on Craigslist. The FBI team checks out each complaint and then passes it along to the proper law enforcement agencies—local cops, state police, or even federal agents if it’s serious enough, such as a big-time real estate scam.

Flag a Scammer on Craigslist

Good news! You can report and flag suspicious Craigslist ads on the site. You can first select the “flag” icon found on the post in question to report the suspected Craigslist scammer. Users can also contact Craigslist directly through the “Contact Us” page and using the “Report a Scam” selection. Then, provide the complete details about the suspicious or fake Craigslist post. Remember that Craigslist contacts don’t require personal information like addresses, bank accounts, or credit reports, especially if they ask for them through off-platform sites.  

Are Craigslist Rentals Safe?

Craigslist rentals can be legitimate and secure if proper precautions are taken. Just follow the recommendations in this article to avoid fraudulent listings and identify legitimate rental opportunities.

Don’t Get Scammed On Craigslist. Get An Expert On Your Side

Some say, if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck – it’s a duck. Not so on Cragislist. If it looks like a duck on Craigslist, it may be a pig. So, be vewy, vewy, careful! Information is power in the real estate industry, but it wouldn’t hurt to get a professional on your team when looking through Craigslist rental listings.   Had any nasty experiences with property scams? Any tips for renters or landlords to help them avoid being scammed? Share the wealth!    

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