Searching for an apartment or looking to buy a home? Learn to spot the scams in online classifieds.

The process of finding a new home, whether it’s an apartment rental or purchase of a house or condominium, can be tedious and stressful. Unfortunately there are people hoping to take advantage of your exhaustion and frustration as you peruse listing after listing. Some scammers only want to trick you into signing up for a service you don’t need in order to make a few pennies, and some scammers intend on separating you from a large chunk of cash you can’t afford to lose. The former is irritating, but the latter is devastating, financially. Here are some schemes to watch out for.

The Fake Listing Scam

When I was looking for an apartment in 2010, I encountered this particular scam. It’s actually more shady marketing trickery than scam, but it’s still in the realm of fraud, albeit on a more benign scale. The scammer is usually a person who has an affiliate account with a credit reporting company and will receive a tiny commission per referral that ends in a sign-up. Apparently, the easiest way to reel in these referrals is to place ads in online classifieds displaying apartments or homes that don’t exist…or simply aren’t actually for rent or sale.

In order to be successful in catching the eye of a prospective ‘mark,’ the ad has to distinguish itself from all of the legitimate ads. One way is to insert a ridiculously low rent or sale amount for a high-end property in the title of the ad (“5 bedroom, 4 bath home in La Jolla for $1000 per month!” – yeah, only in your dreams). Often the scammers don’t bother to mask their email addresses, nor do they list a phone number (an obvious tip-off). They will then write a description of the bogus property hoping to have you salivating, and they might include images stolen from real estate websites (if you look closely you’ll see that the images often aren’t even from the same property).

In 2010 I spotted one such ad in Craigslist. I knew it was too good to be true, but I was curious about the ad composer’s angle. Here’s the reply I received from ‘Shelly Hunter’:

Hello,

I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get back to you sooner! Things have been so hectic for me these last couple of days!

The good news is that the rental is still available! We had an offer from the first person we showed it to, but now it appears that they are changing their mind, so we need to start showing it again as soon as possible. You were the second one to email me about it.

It is the whole place that is for rent, and it’s in pristine condition. We know a lot of prospective renters want to do a quick look of the property, but my husband doesn’t want me to mass send out the address as a measure of safety. Last time we did that without verifying people, the empty property was broken into and vandalized. We don’t want that to happen again! I CAN tell you that it’s a very special property, that would normally rent for quite a bit more than other comparable properties in the neighborhood.

All utilities are connected and will be transferred into your name. You will be responsible for cable, internet, and phone, if you decide to have these services. Just to confirm, we DO allow pets at this property. The rental term is 12-month lease, but can be switched into a 6-month lease if preferred. We just ask that you give us fair notice if you are moving out.

If you would like to set up an appointment, go to the link below and request the free copy of your rental / credit report. We use this company for all the properties we manage. Just fill out the form and indicate that you want the free credit report. The actual scores on the report aren’t important to us, it’s more of a formality to have it on file, to make sure you are who you say you are.

Get your report here: http://leasing-reports.com/ (referral code redacted)

Remember, we only need to see the page about the rental history. That will be all you will need to bring with you to the showing.

As far as getting together to see the property goes, I am available to show it any time from 10:00 am on, for the next couple of days. Let me know when you’ve printed out your credit report, and we will set up a time to do your walk-through.

Thank you once again for your interest!

Shelly Hunter

If I had signed up for the “free” credit report, leasing-reports.com would’ve tossed a few coins into Shelly’s coffers. And if I’d sent a follow up email to Shelly, you can bet that she would have ignored me. I would have served her  purpose in her eyes.

Fast forward to 2013: as I was looking for a cheaper apartment, I discovered that this little scheme is still making the rounds of the online classifieds. Naturally, I couldn’t resist answering one of them.

The ad was titled, “500 / 1br – New 1 BR, 1 BA Condo (san diego)” and the contact email was listed as staffordlakesha343@hotmail.com. This was the response I received from “Lakesha”:

Hi,

First and foremost, thank you for your interest in the home. I am available to show the house this week if that fits your schedule.

Just to give you a little more information about the home, the water, trash

and garbage are paid by us. The security deposit can be paid in 2 installments if money is tight. (I know how that can be). The house has a fenced in backyard and we do allow pets. The deposit per pet is a one time payment. The house includes a washer and dryer, and we pay for lawn care so the renter does not have to cut the grass.

There is NO application fee (our company policy and guarantee).

I will be happy to show the house at an agreed upon time and date but I do require that all applicants and additional renters who will be living in the home complete a free credit report to ensure their eligibility.

I have so many people apply for homes that I have to make sure they are qualified renters before I show the property. This ensures neither of us will be wasting our time.

It is okay if you have bad credit (trust me). We just check to make sure that you don’t have several evictions on your record. (We won’t rent if you have 3 or more evictions on your record)

I also had to recently stop giving out the exact address of rental properties before I am able to show them because last time I did that the house was vandalized (I will be glad to send you the address right after your reply) I assure you though that this is a very safe neighborhood. I actually lived in this home for 2 years (very cozy).

As soon as you can, please click the link below and go to the secure website to complete the free credit report (takes about 30 seconds) Once you complete, I’ll call you once I receive the information from the credit company (very quickly usually).

http://egdcheckreport.org/referral code redacted)

(Copy and paste this link to your address bar if it is not clickable)

*** You don’t have to send me your credit report.

Once you fill out the report the credit company automatically forwards me your name, email address and whether you have had any outstanding evictions in the past 5 years to determine your renter eligibility. This is the only information I am interested in. This is a soft credit report so it won’t touch your FICO score (which is why we work with them).

This process turns some people off, so I completely understand if you decide not to complete them. In that case, good luck with your home search. I just want to be honest with you up front about our process, which does a good job of protecting us from ineligible renters and scammers. Also, the site above is one the safest and most secure website for credit reports in the world, which is good for peace of mind. I have worked with them personally for a couple years now.

If you are truly interested in proceeding, take a moment and fill out one of the reports. Let me know when this is done and we can then work out the time and date to go see the home. Email me back once you access your fresh report. I will be forwarded the information. (Make sure to include a valid phone number. I usually call within 6 hours of submitting your report. Then I can forward you the address and we can set up a time to tour the home.)

If eligible you will also be sent an email with my office number so we can set up a time to go see the house and discuss any other questions or concerns you may have.

Thanks,

Lakesha

As with Shelly, it’s unlikely that I would ever hear from Lakesha again. But, of course, I just had to answer Lakesha’s email with this:

Well, Lakesha (if that’s your real name), the text of this email is nearly identical to similar emails I’ve received regarding what appear to be properties that don’t exist. What you want me to do is sign up for a supposedly free credit report so that you can receive a commission upon my successful registration. Sorry, not taking the bait. Find a better way to earn a few pennies. But guess what! I’ll be sure to mention you and your little scheme (without your referral links, of course) on my blog, scammersuncovered.com. I guess you should have paid closer attention to the domain name of my email address, huh?

Buh-bye!

Yes, Lakesha was so busy responding to the horde of emails she received regarding this fictitious property that she completely overlooked the scammersuncovered.com portion of my email address.

Here are few more listings that I discovered along the way (take note of the email addresses):

Posted by mesazyziwexy@hotmail.com
Craig’s List ad (8/29/13)
$600 / 3br – Big Home for growing family (San Diego)
Large Place for increasing family or Pets. Acknowledged to be tri level because of big den or play room. 3 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, Brick fireplace in living room. While the place is leased it will not be listed for purchase. I hope you enjoy it as much as we have.

More from this poster: http://www.google.com/#q=mesazyziwexy%40hotmail.com

And this one…

Posted by gthank171@yahoo.com
$600 / 2br – 1570ft² – 2BR/ 2BA 1570 SF House in Las Brisas with 2 Car attached Garage (San Diego, CA)

2BR/ 2BA 1570 SF House in Las Brisas with 2 Car attached Garage, wonderful easterly views, pergola covered patio and decent sized yard with grass. newer stove and dishwasher, newer A/C unit, no W/D, master bath retiled.

More from this poster: http://www.google.com/#q=+gthank171%40yahoo.com

If you had answered any of these ads, you would have received basically the same pitch given by Shelly and Lakesha. The wording might be a little different but the message is essentially the same. Just remember that it is not necessary for you to provide a credit report in order to view a prospective property.

Other miscellaneous rental scams

The imaginations of scammers seem to grow exponentially as an economy sours; even as the economy begins a slow recovery, there’s no rest for the enterprising fraudster. Read through this article to learn just how creative these scumbags can get; here a few for starters:

  • A pretend owner ‘rents’ out a vacant home
  • A fake agent pretends to rent a foreclosed property then splits before the renter moves in
  • A fake property manager pretends to rent out a home that’s for sale
  • A real owner rents his foreclosed property
  • A con artist borrows a real apartment or address and collects deposits and Social Security numbers
  • A con artist rents a real, but unavailable, apartment to tourists

Read through both pages of advice. When you’re done with that article, read what the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Information says about rental scams. Then peruse information from USA.gov’s article, Renter Beware: Be Careful when Choosing a Rental Property.

In order to keep your money out of the hands of scammers, it pays to perform due diligence not only on the property in question, but also on purported property managers, realtors, and property owners. It’s a tedious chore, adding to the stress of finding a new home, but it’s better to lose a few hours than lose hundreds or thousands of dollars to fraud.

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