8 Things on a Craigslist Listing That Shout “Scam!”

published Jul 13, 2018
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(Image credit: Alexandre Zveiger)

Much like dating, searching for a place to live can be the opposite of fun. In love, you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs. In realty, you’ve got to scroll through a lot of listings. Both, in their own way, pose the risk of catfishing. But at least if you get duped by an embellished Tinder profile, the worst that usually happens is a bad date (which you can get through with the help of a drink or two!)— at end of it all, you get to unmatch, wash your hands of the encounter, and hopefully move on with little to no impact to your day to day. Real estate scams, however, are less innocuous: One bad agreement and you’re homeless with a hole the size of a few grand burned through your wallet.

And the chance that you’re dealing with a real estate scam is higher than you’d think: According to the Better Business Bureau, more than half of rental scam listings go unidentified by Craigslist. Posts marked “suspicious” can stay up on the site for as long as 20 hours.

These pesky scams aren’t going anywhere, says Ori Goldman, CEO and co-founder of Loftey, an NYC-focused moving startup. Goldman also he had one client looking for a New York City apartment from out of town who sent him 20 listings that the client liked, and all 20 were fake.

“Scammers are very good at this, and they’ve been perfecting ways to do it,” Goldman said. “If you’re on a website that allows fake listings and the listing seems too good to be true, there’s a 95% chance that it is.”

Knowing this, the first and foremost tenet of Craigslisting—established by Craigslist itself—is to deal locally, face-to-face. The website suggests following this rule to avoid 99 percent of all scam attempts—but sometimes even before you meet face-to-face some scammy things can pop up. With this in mind, here are seven immediate red flags on Craigslist that can suggest a scam.

1. An unreasonably low price.

Are you drawn to a certain listing because of a too-good-to-be-true price? Compare the listing to other in the same area—if low rent is an outlier, then it’s probably a scam, says Goldman

2. No mention of an address (or an address that doesn’t make sense).

If a Craigslist post mentioned the general area of the listing, but not an exact address, that’s a red flag. If they don’t have a physical address for you, they probably don’t have any physical property for you, either.

If there’s a photo of a gorgeous view of say, Central Park, but the view doesn’t match up with the actual location of the listing, that’s another red flag.

“A real broker wouldn’t post a photo like that because it would waste their time,” Goldman says. If a real broker did that, the potential renter would show up, ask why the view wasn’t what was promised, and the broker would be out of a deal.

3. You can find multiple listings for the apartment… in different cities.

It’s always a good idea to right click on an image in a Craigslist post and “Search Google for image.” If the image pops up on other listings, or other websites for a different location you’re dealing with a cloned listing. If you Google a sentence from the listing and find the same ad listed verbatim in other cities, stop there. Fake listers will often copy and paste real realtor’s ads word for word and photo for photo, trying to catch people willing to put down a deposit site unseen. Make sure the “agent” is legitimate by checking to see that they work with a reputable company.

4. They can’t show you the apartment.

Many scammers say that they can’t meet you at the property because they’re “out of the country. Others will tell you to drive by the location and see the exterior, but they can’t show you the inside for whatever reason. If they can’t show you the interior, it’s because they don’t have access, not because they’re on vacation in Greece. Don’t take that as an excuse.

A real property manager or landlord will find a way to arrange for someone they trust to meet you and show you inside. This is a transaction, after all—they want a good tenant to protect their asset, and you want a good place to live. If they don’t seem to care about who you are by asking for a background check or your rental history, they’re probably scamming you.

If you can’t make it to the property yourself because you haven’t moved to the city yet, or for any other reason, send someone you trust on your behalf. You don’t want to put down a deposit on a home that doesn’t exist.

5. The listing comes with a sad story.

Is the person trying to lease the property ASAP because they just had a death in the family and need the funds for the funeral? That’s very sad—if actually true—but it’s also suspiciously convenient timing. Finding the right match between a property owner and a property renter should take time.

It is completely reasonable to request a criminal background check and employment verification for the landlord and/or the property manager. This is, again, where home hunting and dating are totally akin. If you’d Google a suitor before the date, do some research on the property owner before you check the place out. The same goes for a potential Craigslist roommate. It’s 2018 and most people have a social media presence of some sort, so go ahead and use that resource for additional security.

6. It mentions specific payments.

When it comes to Craigslist, “wire transfer,” “money order,” “Western Union,” “Prepaid Visa,” and “Moneygram,” are all absolute red flag words. When you send money through these forms of payment, it is essentially impossible to get your money back. That’s why these forms of wire transfers are a scammer’s method of choice.

However, if they’re asking for your deposit to be paid via a “certified check,” don’t freak out. This is standard practice and is just verification to your landlord that you have the money in your account needed to pay the deposit (that the check isn’t going to bounce).

If you’re looking for a subletter or a roommate, and they’re asking if they can send you a money order or wire transfer for the deposit, this might be a red flag, too. Search the email address or the name of someone who wants to rent your room to make sure they’re a real person (as stated above, an actual social media presence can be a good sign).

7. They want money before you even see the apartment.

Though you’ll probably need to put down the first month’s rent as a security deposit along with your application fee, any more money paid before you sign the verified lease is suspicious: According to Trulia, there is never an authentic reason for a realtor to charge a viewing fee. If anyone wants cash up front, don’t take the bait. There is no legal obligation for you to pay a single cent (or provide any private information, for that matter) before viewing the property itself first.

8. They’re charging an abnormally large security deposit.

Did you know that in most states, it’s illegal for a landlord to charge one to two months rent as a security deposit? While landlords in New York City can ask for as many months up front as they want, their neighbors in New Jersey can only ask for one and a half months up front.

If you’ve been scammed, be sure to contact Craigslist, the Federal Trade Commission, and Federal Bureau of Investigation Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).