Craigslist Rental Scams: What to Look for and How to Protect Yourself

Updated on April 6, 2016

With rental markets tight, scam artists have swarmed to craigslist to take advantage of desperate house and apartment hunters. Protect yourself by learning to identify these fake ads.

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Last year while looking for an apartment on craigslist, I noticed a disturbing trend in the housing selection: roughly a quarter of the ads, perhaps more, were posted by overseas scam artists looking to make some easy cash from desperate apartment hunters. To show you what I’m talking about, here’s an email I received after responding to a posting for a one bedroom apartment in Palo Alto, California. I received dozens like these during my apartment search, some identical to each other except for the address.

Hello

How are you doing today? and thanks for been interested in my apartment. My Name is James Borgen owner of the apartment you want for rent, my apartment is available for rent and it Located on: (--- Channing Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94301) with good transport link... I resided in the apartment few months with my wife and Kid before we had to move for a missionary work in United Kingdom which we will be staying for long, we need someone that can fit into the apartment in our absent. The apartment is available for rent at (1400 Dollars) Per Month including Utilities and Appliances you can rent it for a short and long term (The apartment is Fully Furnished & Can Be Made Unfurnished). We left behind some Facilities and electronics appliances which is included in the rent per month, the kitchen is fully equipped with all necessary cooking utensils, a refrigerator-freezer, hob and oven microwave, dishwasher and washing machine, DVD,Cable, TV ,Internet, Wood Floor, Central Heating, Stereo, Air Conditioning and More!

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NOTE: You can only drive by and see the apartment from the outside as the keys and Document are here with me, if you are really interested in renting the apartment get back to me with the application questions filled, i will email you pictures of the interiors as soon as i confirm your interest with the application filled for you to have a proper view of the inside. I would have really love to send the keys and document to someone in the STATES but i don't have anybody there right now to give them to, so after all is finalize the keys will be send to the address you will be providing to me in the application below, we have not stay long in the city before we had to move to for our missionary work which we will not be coming anytime soon.

(RENT APPLICATION QUESTIONS)

[The email then lists a number of rental application questions]

Awaiting to read from you at your convenience...........

Thanks God Bless You

James.

Those of you familiar with this type of scam know what comes next. The “landlord” will offer to send you the key to the apartment once you wire him a deposit on the rental. Of course, you’ll never see the apartment or your money again.

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Why do people fall for it?

To many of you, the email’s awkward and broken English, lack of personalization, and cliché story about missionary work scream “scam”. Why, then, do so many people fall for it?

  • Desperation: This particular posting was in the San Francisco Bay Area, where it’s nearly impossible to find an apartment for a reasonable rent. Believe it or not, lots of people probably responded to the fake ad mentioned above because $1400 for a one bedroom apartment in Palo Alto (at least, the safe parts) is almost unheard of. Where I live, apartments that are reasonably priced are often snatched up within a day of being posted on craigslist—sometimes within hours. Some renters are so desperate for a rental that they’ll act fast without thinking through the details.
  • Actual addresses and photos: Most of the scam ads use addresses and photos of actual properties. Scammers lift details and photos from ads of actual houses that are for sale or for rent, and they post the information as their own. In some cases, the scammers even use the real names of the people who own the properties.
  • Trust: A substantial number of scam ads are posted by people claiming to be missionaries in Africa or the UK, and their emails are littered with “God bless you” and other religious statements. I suppose this takes advantage of people who assume that if someone claims to be a missionary, they must be honest!

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Some warning signs

Not all fake ads on craigslist are going to be as obvious as our UK missionary. Here are some red flags that should make you seriously question the authenticity of a prospective landlord, if not abandon your pursuit of the rental altogether.

  • Lack of personalization: The posters of fake ads typically send form letters with no reference to your name or anything you may have mentioned in your response to the ad. Notice the generic “hello” greeting in the above example.
  • Broken English: “…thanks for been interested in my apartment.” Many (though not all) scammers are overseas.
  • Auto-filled info: In the above example, notice how the information specific to the unit—the address and rent amount—are in bold and in parenthesis. The scammer is using software to auto-fill the information depending on which of the scammer’s thousands of ads the victim replies to.
  • Rent is below market: If the rent is far below what is typical for the area, something is wrong.
  • Absent landlord: If the prospective landlord claims to be a missionary or otherwise “travelling”, it’s a scam.
  • Pressure: Be suspicious if a landlord uses scare tactics (“unless you send a deposit now, I’ll rent to someone else”) or in any way pressures you to pay a deposit or sign a rental agreement.
  • Wiring money: A legitimate landlord will never ask you to wire money, especially overseas.

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Do’s and Don’ts

  • Never agree to rent a unit without ever actually seeing the inside of the property. Don’t be satisfied with seeing only the outside of the property—this is another common scam.
  • Always meet the prospective landlord in person—talking over the phone isn’t enough.
  • Never wire money. Pay your deposit by check (never cash) in person.

Do trust your instincts, and never let anyone pressure you into a rental agreement. If something doesn’t seem right, back out! You can always find a rental somewhere else.

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    • profile image

      Tina 

      16 months ago

      Is it common for a scammer to actually show the property? Or is that a sign if a legitimate offering?

    • profile image

      Claire Wilson 

      24 months ago

      Same thing happened to me last week. Need a place in San Jose CA and the rent was way to low. Reverse checked the number and not even close to where he said he was. I knew it was too good to be true but had hoped i was just lucky. The only thing was i did give my phone and address for reference and that really bothers me. So stupid but really need a place and wanted to get something soon. Lesson learned!

    • profile image

      J A Tucker 

      2 years ago

      Scammers are getting bolder and smarter. Missions in Africa are being replaced by "new jobs in London" or more sophisticated stories. Rent rates are being set closer to market rate or just under since people are getting savvy to $500 penthouse apt ads. One female AOL blogger even "met" the renters, a well-spoken man and a woman for extra trust. She tested the keys, then signed a totally phony lease! Latest Craigslist scam is scammers warn apt hunters that "only replies sent to" a non-Craigslist email will be answered. I have heard of scammers using phony cards, phony addresses, real addresses where you can go "look at the property from the outside." Beware the weekend scammers who work all week to set up a cluster of marks and collect money all weekend when real estate and property management offices are closed!

    • profile image

      123Hopeful 

      4 years ago

      Just yesterday I responded to an ad on Craigslist for a 1b/1b apartment in San Francisco for an amazing price. I figure it couldn't hurt to look into it! I got an email back from the person saying he was working in NY and didn't want to sell the apartment so he just wanted someone responsible to take care of it while he and his wife were away, and it could be for long or short term rent. He had me go look at the outside of the building and fill out the application (all in the email body, not an actual form) and right after that he said I had the apartment, and he wanted the money (wired) before mailing me the keys. That's when the red flag went up in my mind. So after some research and back and forth emails where I asked him more about the property and if he could send me his proof of ownership, he agreed to send me the keys before I make a decision. So now I am waiting for the keys to take a look inside the apartment. It's all really confusing, as this opportunity would be amazing if it isn't a scam. But it does really sound too good to be true, and most of the things I went through during this process sounds a lot like your situation above. I have not given him any other personal information than what someone could easily find online. I guess we'll see...

    • KenDeanAgudo profile image

      Kenneth C Agudo 

      5 years ago from Tiwi, Philippines

      i have experience several scams an with that I have warned myself especially when I am starting to feel that there is something stinky

    • Marc Rohde profile image

      Marc Rohde 

      5 years ago from Racine, WI

      I was recently looking to rent and ran into these. It seems seems common that the scammers are using homes for sale as a source of target addresses and it also seems common that they will say "don't contact the current tenant". I could probably substitute mission work with things like "Red Cross" or other charitable organizations because as you pointed out it targets trust building. Unfortunately being cynical of those who are doing good works in your favor in cases like this.

    • ruthclark3 profile image

      Ruth Clark 

      5 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Excellent hub and well written. It is surprising how many people do fall for these scams. It's sad. Thanks for writing on a timely subject. Maybe you will have saved someone from falling for a scam such as this.

    • MoonByTheSea profile imageAUTHOR

      MoonByTheSea 

      5 years ago

      Thanks for the kind comment--it's amazing how many of these scams are out there!

    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 

      5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      An excellent hub on how to avoid this sort of scam! It also shows how low scammers will go in order to get money out of people - using the missionary, and the 'god bless' stuff etc.

      I think most of us would automatically think, 'why do people fall for it', but as your rightly point out, if any one of us is desperate for somewhere to rent we do tend to get blinkered! I'm sure this excellent article will open up quite a few eyes and save these people from being robbed of their hard earned money!

      Voted up + shared!

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