Updated: Mar 14, 2021
My clients are always surprised to discover that craigslist is the most popular website used by owners, property managers, and agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area to advertise rental homes. The rental market moves quickly here and the simplicity of craigslist allows landlords to add and remove properties quickly and painlessly.
Those of us in the relocation field know that craigslist is a necessary instrument for finding rentals in San Francisco. However, because of its popularity and ease of use, the craigslist forum is also susceptible to abuse from con-artists. As a part of our job as relocation consultants, we warn our clients in advance about the many pitfalls of this popular site and how to avoid common scams.
The Typical Scam
Scammers prey on renters new to the Bay Area rental market who are unfamiliar with the area’s pricing and rental protocols by placing listings of fake, made-up rentals (which are actually photos and descriptions of real homes stolen from websites such as Zillow or Trulia) at 20 to 30 percent below the average market rent. This hook is intended to draw interest from people on the hunt for a great deal in an ideal neighborhood. Building on the prospective renter’s desperation to land their dream apartment for a great price, the scammer offers exclusive rights to book the rental (sight unseen), which can be secured for a deposit payable by wire transfer, Western Union, MoneyGram, or similar remote payment method. The scammer will then have an excuse as to why they are unable to show the listing in the near future and why it is important to send the deposit right away (they are out of the country tending to a sick relative, they only schedule open houses once a month, rentals move so quickly in San Francisco and there is a lot of interest in the apartment). For renters navigating an unfamiliar city and rental landscape who are trying to find “a good deal” in San Francisco, here are a few red flags to look out for in a typical online craigslist rental scam ad.
Red Flag 1 - They're Not local
Craigslist is meant for locals to connect with one another to exchange goods and services. If you find that the owner of the apartment is not local, is “away on a trip”, or will not meet you in person, 99 percent of the time it is a scam.
Red Flag 2 - Unbelievably Cheap
“If it sounds too good to be true… it probably is..” Scam listings are typically priced under market rate by at least 20 percent and often have every amenity imaginable. They are well-located, pet-friendly, and handicapped accessible, and they include utilities, laundry in-unit, and parking. All this can be yours for $700-1,000 dollars per month less than the typical price for a similar listing. If the ad sounds fake, just google the first sentence of the ad and you may see the same ad repeated in several different places on craigslist for different properties.
Cats are OK- purr. The above "european" style apartment with every amenity possible advertising for well-below market rate in a desirable neighborhood is likely a scam listing.
Red Flag 3 - “Email Only” In the Response Tab
Scammers very rarely post their name or phone number in the ad, and typical scam email addresses seem to be a combination of generic American-sounding names and numbers (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org) or gibberish (email@example.com). If they do post a phone number, it is most often a fake number that rings and rings with no voicemail.
Red Flag 4 - Advanced Payment
Scammers will ask for payment via wire transfer or Western Union, even Itunes or PayPal, without meeting in person. Most legitimate landlords will ask for a personal check, a cashier’s check, or a money order for first month’s rent and deposit, and will meet you in person to exchange the executed lease and keys to the apartment. Never send money to a landlord without meeting them, verifying their identity, and receiving a lease and the keys.
Red Flag 5 - Odd-looking Photos
Scammers grab photos of apartments from websites such as Zillow, Trulia, the multiple listing service (MLS), or other legitimate real estate websites that actually advertised the home in the past. They then create a fake rental ad with a fake low price with these photos demonstrating the attributes of the listing. Because scammers are grabbing real photos second-hand, often from a small preview size, the re-posted photos in scam ads are sometimes highly pixilated and may even have a property management company or MLS (Multiple Listing Service) watermarks on the lower right-hand side.
Scam listings use photos that are often highly-pixelated
Above is an actual Zillow page for the home advertised in the scammer's listing. See something familiar? They even copied the description verbatim!
Red Flag 6 - Hints in the Email
If you email a craigslist scammer and they write you back, the email will most likely have these three elements:
Spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors (for many scam artists, English is their second language).
They ask for a lot of personal information about you without giving any about themselves, especially not a phone number. Always email only!! They ask for:
Your Full Name
How Long You wish to lease the apartment
Your Intended move-in date
Often, they offer a payment plan incentivizing a large upfront payment or paying 3, 6, or 12 months rent plus deposit in order to receive a discount on the rent. It is illegal in California for a landlord to collect more than three months' rent on an unfurnished unit in advance and anyone that offers a discount to collect more than three months' rent is breaking the law. This includes the deposit and/or last month rent. Huge red flag. This sample below is taken from an email sent by an actual craigslist scammer. "Lease Options: 1. ONE MONTH PLAN: Pay one month rental fee and security deposit and get 0.0% discount 2. THREE MONTHS PLAN: Pay three months rental fee and security deposit and get 10.0% discount on rental fee. 3. SIX MONTHS PLAN: Pay six months rental fee and security deposit and get 15.0% discount on rental fee. 4. ONE YEAR LEASE PLAN: Pay twelve months rental fee and security deposit and get 20.0% discount on rental fee."
Now that you know what a craigslist scam looks like, here are some ways to to protect yourself against general scams when searching for a rental in the San Francisco Bay Area:
Insist on meeting in person at the apartment and ask for a business card or to see the owner/landlord's ID. Do not rent an apartment “sight unseen”.
Never give out financial info via email (bank account, social security, PayPal account, etc)
Research the name of the agent or owner you are dealing with. You can add quotes around their name. You could add the words “fraud” or “scam” at the end of your search terms. Look up their phone number if they have given you one. It’s important to confirm that they are who they say they are.
Visit Blockshopper.com, a property ownership website for the apartment in question. Who really owns it? Is it the person you’re dealing with? Or someone else?
If you can, work with a trusted property management company or relocation consultant specializing in rentals instead of navigating the market on your own. Most real estate professionals have years of experience filtering out scam listings and avoiding the pitfalls of the market and will guide you to find the right home at the right price for the market.
OK - there you have it! I hope this post was informative and useful. Feel free to share with friends, family, and coworkers. Knowledge is power!