California Forum

Online scams make the rental housing market riskier than ever. Here’s how to avoid them

It seemed too good to be true: a cozy, light-filled cottage with a yard and a garage for under $1,000 a month. I came across it while browsing Sacramento rental listings online.

Newly-refurbished with high-end appliances and hardwood floors, it was perfect. Thus began my experience with the Craigslist rental scam – a threat to anyone searching for an apartment online these days.

The first bad sign: The “landlord” responded in less than an hour. This might initially seem like a good thing, but the instantaneous and enthusiastic response struck me as unusual.

I grew suspicious.

Second hint: He told a complicated story. “Paul” and his wife had put the house up for sale and then decided to rent it out instead. They lived far away and would be unable to meet in person.

Opinion

“Please feel free to drive by and confirm the address and if interested get back to us with your comment so we can proceed further on getting you the keys and paper works for you to move in as soon as possible,” Paul wrote.

He offered me the place without a phone call, tour or credit check. The transaction would apparently take place – quickly – without us ever meeting.

Nope.

My daydream of the sunny cottage faded. I Googled the address and discovered the house was actually for sale on another site. When I went back to Craigslist to flag it as a scam, someone had beaten me to it.

“It appears your Craigslist ad has been flagged for removal as a scam,” I wrote to “Paul.”

“What do you mean?” he replied. “I removed the add myself because I got alot of messages. So had to removed the post. You sound very skeptical that very bad.”

With that, it ended. “Paul” had stolen precious minutes from my life. I felt like a sucker but resolved to forget the whole thing.

Then a friend told me about a similar experience. They had even video chatted with the “owner” before smelling a rat and discovering that the house was listed for sale on other sites.

With Sacramento housing in high demand, the city has become the latest hunting ground for the rental scams that have swept the nation. Unsuspecting renters from Fresno to Kansas City to Miami have found themselves duped by con artists.

In April, police in Merced arrested a Northern California man who had scammed thousands from victims in Monterey County, according to The Sacramento Bee.

One fake landlord “walked away with $60,000 in collected fees from potential renters from a single apartment,” says a warning posted on El Dorado County’s official website.

Here’s how it works: The scammer takes pictures and details from sites like Zillow or AirBNB and posts them online as rentals.

When the unsuspecting victim responds, the scammer offers to rent the place, with a hitch: They can’t meet in person. They trick the victim into sending a deposit via electronic transfer. Then they vanish.

Here are some simple tips to avoid getting ripped off:

“Do not provide funds to anyone you have not met in person,” advises Craigslist. Equally important: “Never wire funds (e.g. Western Union).” By eliminating these two possibilities, you automatically make yourself a hard target for rental scammers to exploit.

Don’t give out personal information. This includes your Social Security number, date of birth, previous addresses, etc. Scammers can use personal information to steal your identity. “Refuse background/credit checks” until you have met the landlord, says Craigslist.

Do your research. “If you’d Google a suitor before the date, do some research on the property owner before you check the place out,” advises Anna Buckley of Apartment Therapy. For instance, a quick Google search of the address might reveal that the “rental” is actually for sale on other sites.

Use common sense. If it seems like a steal, it probably is – a steal of your money. If the landlord has a sad story or can’t meet, it’s likely a scam. Remember: Scammers are sophisticated. “Paul,” for example, cleverly used the real name of someone who formerly lived at the home, making it harder to detect his deception.

The rental market is tough. These scams make it riskier than ever. Keep an eye out and don’t let desperation for a good deal pull you into a cruel and costly trap.

Gil Duran is California opinion editor at The Sacramento Bee. Write him at gduran@sacbee.com.
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