Craigslist is a very popular method to use when searching for a rental abode – apartment, condo or house. You can search Craigslist rental offers from the comfort of home and often uncover legitimate, good deals. However, Craigslist, as well as Zillow, Trulia and other online sources, are a favorite vehicle for scammers who want to steal your money. We aren’t saying that you should avoid Craigslist and its competitors, but rather that you must be extremely careful in verifying a rental offer is on the up-and-up.
Here are some tips on how to avoid the biggest Craigslist rental scams:
1. Verify ownership: There are many rental scammers out there who count on your trusting attitude to rent you a property they don’t own. All it takes is a criminal mind and access to a vacant property, one that might legitimately be on the rental market. A scammer masquerading as an owner might break through a back window or door, steal a door key or otherwise find a way to get into a property for rent. When you show up, the crook will be unusually accommodating, offering you a break on the security deposit and rent if you agree on the spot to take the apartment and write a check or use a credit card. Of course, your “agreement” has no legal standing and your money is gone forever.
You can avoid this nightmare by verifying ownership of a rental property advertised on Craigslist.
Most local governments provide online access to public ownership records. You should contact the legal owner and verify that the property is for rent, that they’ve placed a Craigslist ad, and that they will meet with you at a particular time. If for some reason the records aren’t available, drive by the property and ensure that there is a “For Rent” sign listing the owner/agent and a phone number you can call to verify ownership.
2. Beware of great deals: The old adage “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” applies in spades to Craigslist rental fraud. Scammers may offer low rents, small deposits, and no screening of tenants. The property in question may be owned by someone else, may have a contested title, or may be in the process of foreclosure, among other problems. You can spot unusually cheap rents listed on Craigslist by first doing your homework. Scan local classified ads and trustworthy rental websites to become familiar with the going rental prices in a particular neighborhood. A scam rental will usually stick out by virtue of its ridiculously low rent, and often by poorly written and misspelled property listings. If you can’t verify the deal, don’t get involved.
3. Guard against identity theft: Another approach that fraudsters utilize is to acquire confidential information in your rental application that they can then use or sell for the purpose of identity theft. In this scenario, the scammer offers a great deal on Craigslist but informs you that others are about to take the apartment unless you “act fast.” You’ll be asked to fill out a rental application before you see the property, which either doesn’t exist, isn’t for rent or doesn’t belong to the ad poster. The phony rental application will ask for private information like your checking account number and Social Security number. Months of turmoil may follow in which you try to undo all the damage inflicted by the identity theft.
Never give out personal information on your rental application. Landlords can legally ask to see a valid photo ID before showing you a property, but that’s the limit of their prying before the rental agreement is signed. Be especially wary if the supposed landlord pressures you to submit the application (possibly accompanied by a deposit) before you are shown the property.
4. Email is untrustworthy: This is true across the board for all email, including Craigslist scammers. It begins with a fraudster responding to your interest in a Craigslist listing by replying to your inquiry with a high-pressure email that “explains” in great detail why your bank account and Social Security numbers are needed right away, and why you need to secure the apartment with a deposit before you can view it. A sophisticated scammer might send you a professional-looking email containing logos, artwork, and/or photographs. It can be hard to detect the bogus nature of these emails.
Even worse is an email carrying a virus or other malware. These usually request that you click on a link or visit a website that releases the malware onto your computer. Even if you have excellent anti-virus protection, some threats might get through and perform all sorts of damage, from stealing your personal information to destroying your hard drive. In general, avoid clicking on links in Craigslist emails (and from other sources as well) or visiting a website provided by the email. It’s a good idea to configure your anti-malware program to disallow websites from downloading data, creating popups or executing scripts, and then allow exceptions for only trusted sources.
The first thing to do when you receive an email response to your Craigslist inquiry is to call the phone number of the ad poster and speak with him or her. These folks often don’t like talking on the phone and will try to extract a deposit from you first. If the phone number isn’t listed, your calls aren’t answered, or if a human never picks up or returns your phone call, your antennae should go up. As always, you should verify ownership, as outlined above.
5. Don’t send money: In a rental deal, money should never change hands until you’ve verified the identity of the landlord, inspected the property and signed a rental agreement. Scammers will try to get you to wire money to them before showing you the property. If you get such a request, walk away – it’s a scam. Fraudsters love for you to wire money because the second the money is sent, it’s gone forever and you have no recourse to recover it. At least with a check you can stop payment, which is why scammers will insist on a money wire or a credit card number.
If you’ve read this far, you probably surmise that you shouldn’t give out your credit card number to someone on Craigslist. You can bet that mysterious charges against that card will start popping up almost immediately. Even if the card issuer reimburses you, this kind of activity can wreck your credit score and require remedial actions to fix your credit report.
Finally, never let the Craigslist ad poster come to your home asking for cash. This is outright dangerous. Any posters who indicate the intention of visiting you should be reported to the authorities right away.
6. Watch out for phony agents: Sometimes, scammers assume the identity of a rental agent instead of a landlord. They will claim to be managing the property and handling all tenant applications. The “real” owner is inevitably out of town and has “entrusted” the rental property to the scammer. Often, phony agents will create fake real estate websites that mimic real ones, and then put bogus listings onto Craigslist. The properties involved may indeed be on the rental market, although not through the Craigslist scammer. Sometimes, an enterprising Craigslist fraudster will identify actual properties in which the owners are away and list them for sublet.
Here is one scenario: A scammer tours a property for rent, posing as a potential tenant. While there, the crook takes a wax impression of the front door lock in order to fabricate a key, and collects whatever literature the real agent is handing out. The scammer then lists the property on Craigslist and arranges tours with potential victims during off-hours, when the real agents won’t be there.
Once again, the way to avoid this scam is to verify ownership and to speak with the verified owner directly.
The message is clear: Trust your instincts when dealing with Craigslist rentals. If you can’t easily verify that the property exists, is for rent, and is owned by the ad poster, disengage and look for another property.