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San Carlos Real Estate October 29, 2009

San Carlos renters: Beware of rental scam on Craigslist.

by Chuck Gillooley

scam alert 2

Craigslist has become the defacto standard for connecting people who are renting out their property with people who are looking for a place to live.  And for good reason:  It’s free, and it has phenomenal readership both here in the Bay Area and throughout the country.   Because of this, folks have almost become conditioned to look in Craigslist first when they need to find a rental property.   Sellers are finding that it’s so easy to find a boilerplate rental agreement on the internet that they don’t need a Realtor to help them rent out their property — frankly, I don’t think a Realtor adds much value in these transactions anymore.

So for quite awhile, this method of renting out property has worked incredibly well for all involved.   But like any business where there’s money being exchanged, you’re bound to find thieves and scammers, and they’ve now targeted the rental market with their latest ploy.

Here’s the scam.

Realtors use the internet extensively to advertise the properties that they have listed.  Whether it’s MLSlistings.com, Realtor.com, or even Craigslist,  all of the pictures and descriptions you need to better understand the property are right there for everyone to see.   Unfortunately, it’s ridiculously easy to copy these photos and descriptions from these websites, and scammers have devised a way to make money with this info.

Basically, they find a property online that’s listed for sale and steal the pictures and descriptions to create a phony ad claiming that they’re offering the very same property for rent, usually at an incredibly low price.   They claim to be out-of-town owners, or they’re leaving town due to a family emergency (etc…) so they’re not able to show you the property, and they’re urgent to rent the property out right away (hence the great price.)   Since they’re not local, they’ll ask you to fill out a very basic rental agreement and send them a check to cover the first few months of rent.    Once they get the application and the money, a “family friend” or someone else will meet you at the property to give you the keys  (you can see where this is going..)

The excited renters show up at the property to pick up the keys, only to find a “For Sale” sign on the property.    The unsuspecting listing agent who gets the next phone call has no idea what the duped renter is talking about….  Bottom line, there’s no home for rent, and the money is gone.   Sounds pretty lame, but this very scam is happening right now and it has victimized people not only in the bay area, but all across the country.   I first found out about it through discussions with other APR agents, and then saw this post on a prominent RE blog in Minnesota.

Buyer Beware..

Obviously, a little dose of common sense goes a long way here:

  • NEVER rent a property sight-unseen.  Insist on seeing the property and meeting the owner or Realtor (if it’s being rented through an agent.)
  • Don’t mail money in advance of seeing the property.
  • Do a quick check on the MLS to ensure that the same property isn’t already listed for sale.

One certainly can’t blame Craigslist for this.  They provide and excellent service and they usually do what they can to curb fraud on their site.  But whether it’s a rental scam, or an exiled Nigerian prince who needs your bank account number to deposit his fortune, there’s always someone out there ready to separate you from your money.  Proceed with caution!

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