Online Rental Scams are Still Happening.
July 6, 2021
It's definitely a bummer that I have to end up writing a post like this about once every year, but the scourge of online rental scams never seems to go away. This is especially true now in the post-pandemic world when many people are on the move, and the rental market in a number of big cities has dropped to a point where it has become somewhat affordable to land a decent place. In other words, it's a very fertile environment for an unwitting renter to be scammed.
This latest wave of false rental listings is hitting pretty close to home this time around, because some scumbag is using my name as the property manager for a host of fake rental listings between San Jose and San Francisco on Craigslist. This is somewhat ironic since I don't carry a license to do property management, nor are rentals even a part of my main business. But invariably, I get a call every few days from a potential renter asking if it was me that they have been corresponding with via email (it isn't) about a property rental that sounds too good to be true (it is.) Hopefully nobody has fallen victim to this scam.
It's not terribly difficult to spot a scam listing because they usually have at least one of the following characteristics:
- It sounds too good to be true. Usually it's the price is abnormally low for a home or condo in that condition in that particular neighborhood. San Francisco was rife with rental fraud because it was so competitive to find a place, and prices were so obscenely high prior to the pandemic.
- Signing site unseen. Most, if not all, rental scams involve some sort of story where the unit is not available to be seen before the “rental period” begins, but you're still asked to fill in a lease form AND send in your deposit if you want to beat the “rush” — all without meeting the landlord or property manager, nor having ever seen the property. The story in the false listings that are carrying my name goes as follows: “Please be informed that the apartment is not available for immediate viewing until July 10th as the apartment is currently occupied by a newly wed couple on their honeymoon and will be moving out on 10th of July and before they rented the apartment they requested for complete privacy which I granted. But if the timing works and you do not want to miss out, due to the rush on this apartment you can have the apartment reserve for you until you view/move-in with the payment of the First Month Rent and in addition with the Refundable Security Deposit, and You will also be filling the lease contract form, and your rent will start counting from your move in date. Note that after securing the apartment with the down payment and you happen to see the apartment or for any reason you don't like the apartment when you see it, Your funds will be refunded back to you in full.”
- Questionable grammar. The scams that I'm seeing online are starting get more realistic looking, but there always seems to be an element of bad grammar in most of these listings. On its own, it's certainly not a reason to be suspicious — believe me, I read MLS listings all day from legitimate Realtors where the grammar would shock their 4th grade teacher — but in these cases, your gut instinct will flag you that something doesn't read quite right. You can see instances of this in the example text above, which was lifted verbatim from a false listing.
- Reluctance to connect. Another common theme is the reluctance for the landlord or property manager to communicate with you in any manner other than email. They will not meet you in person, talk on the phone, nor show you the property. There's always some reason they'll cook up why they can't do this, but the real reason is that they don't exist. This should be another huge red flag for you that you're heading down the wrong path.
Unfortunately, it has been my experience that local law enforcement wants to communicate with you about as much as the fake landlord does. Identity theft and rental scams continue to be on the rise, and they don't seem to have the resources to field every complaint, so it's imperative that you watch out for yourself in what continues to be the Wild West of real estate.
Craigslist in my opinion is still the predominant online source that is plagued with false rental listings, but you'll also see scam listings appear on Trulia and Zillow too, so apply the same level of caution regardless of where you're getting the rental listing from.