*Update: We've linked to a fantastic New York University Tandon School of Engineering study on scam apartment rentals on Craigslist.*
Craigslist originated and is headquartered in the Bay Area, which may help explain its enormous popularity in the Bay. Using Craigslist has its many advantages: prices are often negotiable; the selection of products and services is very broad; selling an item or service will often yield many responses; and the sellers and buyers are generally flexible with meeting up. Regardless, there are many pitfalls and Craigslist situations to be wary of, especially if you aren’t already that familiar with buying and selling on the popular peer-to-peer marketplace. As you scour the postings on Craigslist, below is a list of easy ways to spot fake apartments on Craigslist.
No phone number: Craigslist has ways to protect sellers’/buyers’ contact information, so providing a phone number isn’t as risky as it used to be. Even still, many people don’t post their phone number in the ###-#### format, but instead opt to write it out creatively (5five5-six9osix). Posters do this to prevent bots trolling the internet scraping people's personal information. While not having a phone number listed at all in the posting isn’t immediately alarming on its own, it can certainly be a red flag, especially if they don’t provide a number even after initial email correspondences.
Always Google the cost of the product first: I once was in the market for a kayak, and found one I really liked on Craigslist. The eager seller agreed to contact me back in a day and deliver the kayak. Meanwhile, I searched online for that exact same product to find out that Dick’s Sporting goods was having a massive 2-day canoe/kayak sale online, and sure enough, the kayak I was about to buy was actually $40 cheaper if bought in store (free ship to store option). There are lots of flippers of various products out there. With a little research, those same items can often be found at the same source the flipper got it, and at a lower price. This also applies to apartments. If the price seems to good to be true, it likely is, and you should always shop around.
No photos: Not necessarily a deal breaker, but be wary of any post that doesn’t also include a photo. It might be an indication that they are trying to hide the quality of the product until a deal is sealed.
Real estate and apartments: Selling or renting out real estate and apartments via Craigslist can be a little questionable. There aren’t many restrictions in place to ensure that you are getting exactly what you pay for, and/or expect. A New York University Tandon School of Engineering study "analyzed about 29,000 fraudulent listings in 20 major cities, ultimately mapping the listings into seven distinct scam categories, most of which involved credit card payments." The Better Business Bureau recommends the following five precautions:
"How to Spot a Rental Scam:
- Don't wire money or use a prepaid debit card: You should never pay a security deposit or first month's rent by prepaid debit card or wire transfer. These payments are the same as sending cash - once you send it, you have no way to get it back.
- Watch out for deals that sound too good: Scammers lure in targets by promising low rents, great amenities and other perks. If the price seems much better than offered elsewhere, it may be a scam.
- See the property in person: Don't send money to someone you've never met for an apartment you haven't seen. If you can't visit an apartment or house yourself, ask someone you trust to go and confirm that it is what was advertised.
- Don't fall for the overseas landlord story: Scammers often claim to be out of the country and instruct targets to send money overseas.
- Search for the same ad in other cities: Search for the listing online. If you find the same ad listed in other cities, that's a huge red flag."
One common scam tactic is for a "landlord" to email you and request a credit check. See the example below. The Federal Trade Commission reminds you that you're entitled to one free credit report per year from the major credit reporting companies. Don't pay for it.
Be Wary of Roommate Postings: Paying $2,000/month for an apartment in San Fran is a little on the pricy side for some, so roommates seem like a great option. Be wary of posts that use the phrases like "bring the party home" or "clean but not anal". If you do find a potentially good roommate post be sure to meet up in public first and at least spend about 30 minutes getting to know the person. Think of it as roommate speed dating, you'll want to know their job schedule, if they're a night owl, or if they're a party animal who likes to invite tons of people over at all hours.
Browsing the Free Category? Be alert and ready to pounce: You and about 10,000 other people are currently looking at the free section, and like you, they have zero agenda other than to score something of value for no cost. The problem is that anything of value will be snatched up within the first hour of the posting. Here are a few tips:
Curb Alert: If you want it go there NOW. Unless the ad specifies such, don’t email, call or contact anybody to make sure it is cool to go. There is a reason they put it out on the street, and it’s not so they can field calls about whether or not it is still out on the street. You can’t afford to waste any time if you want to be the lucky one.
Call immediately to reserve: If you come across a free item, yet know that it may be a few hours before you can get it, it can’t hurt to call the giver to reserve it. Just be sure to take the item since they promised to remove the posting and not field any more calls.
Avoid free fabric furniture: You may be lucky, but chances are much more likely that the free couch or mattress is stinky, ripped and/or stained. Browse the for sale furniture first and try to bargain for a lower price.
As you search and become accustomed to using Craigslist, you will begin to understand the little nuances and signs of sketchiness. Trust your gut. Happy surfing.