If you’re a prospective applicant in the market for a rental home, it’s important to be aware of the potential scams you may come across on the Internet. The WORST scams are usually found on Craigslist. Craigslist has many useful features, but it’s always important to remember: “buyer beware.”

Here at DeDe’s Rentals, property management company  in Santa Rosa, we see the high-tech thieves pillage from established property management websites.  Scammers”lift” the information and pictures from available rentals, so the they can make their own posts on Craigslist. Given the intentional “low-tech” appearance of most Craiglist postings, and Craiglist’s structure which allows users to retain a high level of anonymity, it is frequently difficult to distinguish HONEST listings from those that are outright thievery.

So, how can you identify a scam on Craigslist, in order to not fall prey to the faux rental property owner? First of all, scammers typically will “undervalue” their listings, advertising rental properties at a much lower rate than other rental properties in the same market. It is not unusual to see a variance of as much as $500 or more. For example, while the typical value for a home in a specific size and location may be $1,750/month, scammers will market their offering at $1,250 or $1,350/month. (What is noteworthy, however, is that the address and supporting data is typically accurate – scam listings identify properties that are otherwise honestly being listed for rent. Criminals will not try this on occupied properties, for obvious reasons.)

On a suspect listing, you’ll find no phone numbers to call. The ONLY way to contact your “prospective landlord” is by the email address provided. However, since Craiglist supports anonymous postings, you won’t get any real clues about the landlord’s whereabouts or identity.

It’s when the supposed owner responds that the clues become much more apparent. At DeDe’s Rentals, we’ve done our own investigations on “scam listings”  over the years, and thieves’ communications typically follow a consistent narrative. While details may vary, the storyline goes something like this: “I am stuck in London, my wife just had surgery, but I desperately need to rent my house.” Alternately, the landlord is a missionary, had to leave for a business trip, etc.

Interestingly, while “Nigerian Investment Schemes” are seemingly an internet cliche, you typically won’t receive a response indicating the owner is stuck in Africa. Instead, they usually allege to be responding from Europe. The spelling and grammar are usually appropriate, not as abysmal as most internet scams.

The “rental property owner” expresses confidence that you’ll be a good tenant, so their requirements are straightforward: if YOU send the security deposit (or some specific amount of money), they’ll immediately provide you with the keys. Of course, since they are (allegedly) in London, they request that the payment be made by Western Union money transfer. After the payment has been made, the scammer will ask for proof of payment “prior to releasing the keys.”

While the specifics of these scenarios differ, the impact is eventually the same. If the scammer is successful in obtaining particular details – sender’s name and address, and the money transfer control number being of utmost importance – they can withdraw Western Union funds from anywhere in the world. Say goodbye to your money; once it’s in Western Union’s network, anyone with the proper information can withdraw it. Because of Craigslists’ anonymous feature, you have NO possibility of identifying who the thief actually was. And because it’s typically an international crime, originating from overseas, the FBI has no authority or inclination to even get involved.

How can you keep from falling prey to these criminals? In Sonoma County, here at Dede’s Rentals, we recommend that, “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” Even the most uninformed landlord has a general sense of their property’s rent value. It would be naive to believe that an investment property owner is so unaware of what their home is worth. Any property significantly undervalued should be considered suspect.

That’s not to say that low rent automatically indicates a scam. However, that factor should put a prospective applicant on their guard, because other “warning signs” will undoubtedly follow: The scammer might tell you that the house is not available for viewing. On-line photographs appear “smudged” – usually to hide an identifying watermark. When you do a “drive-by” of the property, there’s a sign on the lawn indicating that a DIFFERENT person or company is representing the home for rent (or even for sale). No one – not the owner, not a representative – is able to meet with you in person. The owner doesn’t require an application, any tenancy/employment verification, or a rental contract. They’re willing to “trust you.”

Don’t trust them.

Insist on a face-to-face meeting. Never rent any property “sight unseen.” If there is a discrepancy between an internet listing and a lawn sign, call the company identified on the sign to investigate. EXPECT to complete an application. Insist on viewing a sample written rental contract before sending anyone money. IF IT SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, IT PROBABLY IS.

Although there’s no way to completely eliminate these types of scams. All you can do is protect yourself. Don’t become a victim.
For more information on rental property scams and how to avoid them, check out Craigslist.org. If you have any questions please feel free to contact us at DeDe’s Rentals. We will be happy to help you.