craigslist rental scamJust about everywhere you look these days, someone has figured out a way to scam other people out of their money and time. We’ve already written about the risks of getting scammed when it comes to hiring a moving company, but what about finding an apartment itself? Renters have a lot to worry about, with raising rents around the country and landlords requesting highly personal information on rental applications that could be used for identity theft if improperly handled. Craigslist is one of the most popular resources that renters use to find places available near them, but due to its nature of allowing anyone to sign up and post, it is riddled with sketchy postings — and according to a new study, the site does a poor job of catching and removing a large amount of these scams. What types of scams are most common, and how can you avoid them?

Craigslist barely catches half of the scams posted to its site

Researchers at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering recently conducted a study on Craigslist rental scams, analyzing more than 2 million rental listings on the site over a period of five months. Their findings determined that more than one half of rental scams posted to Craigslist are missed entirely — 53% — and suspicious posts often remain posted for at least 20 hours before removal. This gives the scammers creating the posts plenty of time to lure unsuspecting, naive apartment seekers into their traps before getting shut down. They analyzed a number of different types of scams, from those involving clicking on links to purchase credit reports or provide sensitive personal information to ones that steal the word-for-word copy of a legitimate ad and place it at a cheaper price then talk would-be renters into sending a deposit upfront. The findings from the study were sent to Craigslist, in hopes of helping the company to enhance its ability to stop scammers in their tracks.

How to spot and avoid Craigslist rental scams

No matter the exact nature of the scam, savvy renters can be on the lookout for a few key elements that are often tell-tale signs the listing they’re looking at might not be legitimate. We’ve outlined the top identifying clues that you should be watching for the next time you use Craigslist (or any online rental site, for that matter) to hunt for a new place to rest your head.

It sounds too good to be true

No matter whether you live somewhere that has reasonable rent prices or in a big city where they’re skyrocketing, everyone loves to save money. If the average price for a one-bedroom apartment in the area you’re conducting your search is $1,000/month, then a similar apartment listing priced at $700 or less should raise your hackles. Similarly, if you can’t find a one-bedroom apartment for less than $1,000/month, chances are that listing for a three-bedroom with a hot tub and other amenities is not all it’s cracked up to be. The proverb, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” holds a lot of truth, especially when it comes to conducting business online.

Additionally, many scam listings are written to appeal to what they think people want to read. If information about deposits, utilities, extra fees, the exact address and open house times is missing and no photos are provided, proceed with caution. Many scammers use templates to interact with potential victims, so look for wording that seems “off” or flat-out misspellings and other errors that could indicate you aren’t interacting with a professional in any email or text-based exchange. Asking key questions can be a good way to weed out a scam, as scammers are unlikely to want to discuss hard details like utilities.

You are unable to see the place in person

Pictures might be worth a thousand words, but nothing beats getting a chance to tour your prospective home before you sign a lease or pay a deposit. A majority of rental scams are run by people who are making the whole thing up, but as mentioned above, one popular scamming method in this game is to steal the information and photos for a place that really is for rent elsewhere and post their own faux listing. Cunning scammers are prepared with details about the neighborhood and have pictures to show, but you can easily poke holes in their story by pushing for a viewing of the place itself. If you get an excuse such as they are out of town or the apartment is currently occupied and can’t be seen until after you’ve signed, back away immediately. For those who are apartment hunting in a new city/state, it can be difficult to see an apartment in person before signing a lease — in this case, you can rely on Google to help weed out some scammers.

Google Image Search

Click on the camera icon to upload a photo from your computer or paste an image URL

A search of the address on Google Maps can show you what the house or building looks like, providing you with a comparison of what the ad describes. Additionally, utilizing Google’s reverse image search function can be helpful in catching scammers in their tracks — this tool will search for any image you upload or provide a URL for, looking for the same photo or similar on other web pages. Many scammers steal photos straight from other listings, and you’ll know if the photos pop up on listings for another address (or the same address but with markedly different information) that it’s probably not legitimate. In general, if you must rent sight unseen, it’s wise to try and get someone local to check places out for you or wait until after you move before you lock something down. A few nights in a hotel will probably cost far less than the money lost to a scammer.

The Craigslist post is flagged for removal

Many apartment hunters bookmark prospective listings as they conduct their search, and even if you forget to do so, emails sent through Craigslist will provide a link to the original listing for your reference. If you’ve been interacting with someone and go to check back on the listing and see that it’s been flagged for removal, that’s a huge sign you’re dealing with a scammer. Craigslist has its own information page to help users learn about and avoid scams, which you can reference, and it’s good to know in general that a listing that has been flagged (rather than removed or deleted by the creator) usually has been found to violate the site’s terms of service.

Money is requested directly and upfront

A hallmark of scams of all kinds is the demand for immediate, upfront payment. Some rental scams get creative and make money through referring unwitting victims to credit report sites (which may or may not be legitimate, potentially exposing you to identity theft) that pay the scammer for their referral, while others rip people off with the old-fashioned method of a wire transfer or credit card payment. When it comes to renting an apartment, you might come across legitimate rentals that ask for a rental application fee (usually to cover the costs of pulling your credit reports), but anyone requesting a deposit before the signing of a lease or letting you come and see the place is likely up to no good. Although the apartment rental business is competitive and fast-paced, you should avoid anyone who pressures you to make an immediate decision or payment.

Craigslist rental scams, like any other kind of scam, can be easy to spot if you are diligent and follow your instincts. Remember not to jump into something because it sounds like a good deal, and pay attention to the classic hallmarks of scams like pressure to act quickly or withholding of pertinent information. To learn more about staying ahead of scammers, follow our blog on the topic.