Craigslist, Scammers, and Real Estate

Every few weeks, I get a call from someone who is reaching out to see whether a property I had listed is actually for rent. These tech-savvy folks have often performed a reverse search on the photos posted in the rental listing and found my information. Almost always, my answer is no – the property is not for rent, the photos and/or listing details are being used without permission, and they’re interacting with a scammer. Here’s what to know about Craigslist, scammers, and real estate, particularly in the Bay Area.

Craigslist is a Go-To for Bay Area Landlords

It takes some people by surprise to learn that Craigslist is a very popular place to advertise rental homes. But it makes sense – it’s simple and quick to post and remove properties. Unfortunately, the same features that make it a great option for legitimate owners, property managers, and agencies make it a tool for scammers as well.

In many cases, fake listings use photos and descriptions taken from real estate websites with rental prices that are well below average market rates. Once people express preliminary interest, the scammer offers rights to book the rental, sight unseen, with a deposit that can be paid remotely – a wire transfer, PayPal, Western Union, etc. Scammers will have various reasons why they can’t meet in person and emphasize that this property won’t be available for long, creating a sense of urgency that may persuade newcomers to the Bay Area to jump on what they think is a great deal.

With scammers, there are often red flags that become hard to ignore once you know what to look for:

  • Availability. If the owner or landlord you’re communicating with is consistently unavailable to meet in person, chances are very high this is a scam.
  • Price point. Very often, scam listings seem too good to be true. Not only are they priced well below comparable units in the same neighborhood, they have every amenity you could want. A good way to double check a listing that seems like a dream is to copy and paste the first sentence of the listing into a search engine. Odds are good you’ll see the exact same listing appear elsewhere – or even on Craigslist for another property! – which tells you everything you need to know.
  • Weird photos. Scammers steal photos to use on their fake listings, and resizing screengrabs can create distorted, pixelated images. In some cases, watermarks are even visible or the images don’t seem to be cohesive. If the photos are giving you pause, consider it a warning sign.
  • A request for email only. No contact information in the ad, aside from an innocent-sounding email? It makes no sense for a legitimate post to make it difficult for potential renters to get in touch, so this is another common sign of a scam.
  • A request for advanced payments. Legitimate landlords tend to request a personal or cashier’s check or a money order to cover the first month’s rent and the deposit. They’ll meet you in person to sign the lease and give you the keys. If someone is insisting that you pay upfront without an in-person meeting, it’s not a good sign.
  • Other clues. Let’s say you suspect nothing from the listing and decide to email. Look for clues in the correspondence you receive. Are there formatting issues or copy errors? Are you being asked to share extensive personal information without an offer to meet in person to see the property? And most tellingly, are you being offered discounts for lump payments to cover the first three, six, nine, or twelve months of rent? Keep in mind that it’s illegal for a landlord in California to collect more than three months’ rent on an unfurnished unit, so this is already an issue.

How to Protect Yourself

A little due diligence can go a long way, so make a point of running searches on listing descriptions and the agent or owner in the listing. It’s also a good idea to assume that anyone who seems resistant to meeting isn’t legitimate. Never rent a property “sight unseen,” and be wary of prices or listings that seem too good to be true – they probably are. Listen to your gut, and if you still have questions, ask a professional.

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