How To Spot Craigslist Rental Scams

Is renting on Craigslist a good idea? Thousands of people post ads here every day for free, often offering the best prices. How?

Few things make it different: it’s simple, functional, free, and targeted. Almost every city has a CL subdomain for local audiences.

But let’s not confuse low-cost with reliable. Craigslist shows the most recent deals of your zone, and the first few of the list get thousands of views. Since it’s free, it’s not surprising that some spammers try to take advantage of it.

The lack of entry suggests an inherent lack of reliability. Sellers can advertise their products the way they want, which often leads to confusion. The buyer, for example, rents a property, only to find out later the deal they financed was a sale with a security deposit.

Many consider renting a necessity in an ever-changing world because you don’t own the asset. But did you know that some of the ‘rentors’ neither do? 

Don’t rent on Craiglist unless you come prepared.

What Are Craigslist Rental Scams?

What Are Craigslist Rental Scams

Craigslist rental scams stand for those listings that look too good to be true, and there’s no way to verify it. What do we mean by that?

  • The rentor won’t show the asset until you buy, only photos.
  • The rentor is out of town/cannot meet with you.
  • You have to take risks before moving forward on the deal (advance payments and data sharing)

Dishonest rental listings may show every scam red flag, but the reason people accept it is the hook. One might get excited too quickly before questioning whether the offer exists.

Scammers can still show you the property without owning it, although it requires trickery and organization.

As a result, you pay a fraudulent seller who has nothing to do with the offer. You either get a contract you didn’t request, or you pay for nothing.

Why Craiglist Rentals?

After weeks of browsing, one can quickly feel frustrated for the lack of opportunities. But when one stumbles with Craigslist listings, they look different (not always in a legit way).

There’s no doubt scammers are deceiving people. However, it all starts with the buyer’s psychology. A smart con man knows how to exploit those blindspots and lure the person into the trap. And because they’re playing with confidence, the victim cannot protect a scam that they allowed themselves. Here are three tactics:

#1 Desperation

Imagine you spend days browsing to rent a property or vehicle. But you only find one (time-limited!) listing that fits your criteria. Don’t you feel lucky to have found it?

See car rental scam examples and how you can avoid them.

Now, your market perspective increases the more experiences you have. If you only find one listing, however, you’ll look at it better than it actually is. The fact you didn’t find any other seller makes it scarce and valued. It creates a positive feeling and attachment before you even contact the seller.

Later, if you find a scam red flag, your brain will deny it. We’re more likely to notice what we’ve already seen/believed. Can you see how dangerous it is?

#2 Opportunity

Everybody likes good deals. Opportunities often attract the greedy and egoists, who often forget an essential question: “what’s in it for the other?”

Nobody drops prices without having a plan. Some sellers do it to build trust for a better, higher sale in the back end. Others may do it to test the market, liquidate, or give back. And others do it to attract victims and scam.

How to differentiate them? Easy: if you don’t know what’s in it for them, or they avoid the conversation, it’s the last one. Real opportunities benefit both parties.

#3 Credibility Markers

In the Craigslist listing, you may find a lot of proof:

  • Property images, 3D tours, and videos
  • Lots of positive seller reviews
  • An informative, high-converting description

Scammers don’t waste time with preventive clients. Somewhere in the listing, they mention what they will/won’t do, what to pay, when, and how.

You might worry about a thing or two when contacting, but because it looks good, you buy. 

Warning Signs

Warning Signs

Always assume scammers are as smart as you, if not more. The best scammers show the fewest red flags. But because they’re scams, there’s always going to be one clue or two to reveal the difference.

#1 Poor Listing Quality

You find a rental property with a good location, condition, and price. Everything else looks out of place. The listing includes a vague description of the building, and there are no images. Should you contact this rentor?

Judging by the appearance, they either don’t want to rent or don’t own the property. If there are no images— or there’s only one that repeats— the property may not exist.

Fraudulent listings often focus on the payment method more than the property itself:

When the description becomes generic/abstract, consider it a fake listing.

#2 Limited Payment Options

Why would a rentor want to limit your payment options? As long as they receive the payment, there’s no problem. 

Scammers often ask for money orders/ checks/ wire transfers. One may think that, because it’s a recurrent payment, bank transfers for renting are an exception. But scammers can use any method excluding buyer’s protection to rip you off.

For example, you might try to defend your payment method as the best for the rental. After discussing, the rentor may agree, only if you pay the first month upfront via wire transfer. Of course, they will scam you by that time and disappear.

Don’t listen to any promises until you’ve visited the property and made the right questions.

#3 The owner is out of town

From the very first message, the rentor informs that he’s in another city, has the keys, and won’t come back in a while. He won’t be able to show you the property, but he offers a discount for the inconvenience. What should you do?

Rentors don’t want to lose potential buyers. If they cannot show the property, they can delegate it to a trusted partner while they’re away. 

More often than not, the “business trip” is an excuse that suggests: I cannot show it because I don’t own it. Your “rentor” is probably an international con man, and the real owner never heard about you.

#4 They show you a property they don’t own

In which case, they may say:

  • I’m a real estate agent/associate.
  • The owner is out of town, and he let me manage the property.
  • This property belongs to a friend who asked me to rent it.

Learn more about real estate scams here.

Those excuses usually work, except when you can’t prove them. Some people don’t give it much importance when it could be a rental scam. How do you know it’s not a fake realtor?

You ask the owner if you could. The agent says they’re selling someone else’s property because the owner is too busy to do it. Too busy to even receive messages!

If you ask to contact them for a quick check-up, the agent will refuse. Then, you know the “owner” either doesn’t exist or is unrelated to this seller.

#5 You find multiple listings

It’s common to find duplicate listings by mistake on Craigslist. Rentors who need clients fast will reupload their listings every day to appear on the top of the list. Thus, the offer the rentor gives you via private messaging may be different from the listing. 

What is NOT okay is to find:

  • the same listing with different addresses
  • listings on other platforms showing different cities
  • listing copies with a different seller name/phone number each

Then, there’s no way to find the owner unless you visit the property, if you ever find the address. Knowing how many sellers advertise it, the real owner has likely rented the property already: look somewhere else.

#6 Unrealistic renting price

Sellers always have a reason to set a price below the market. If you can’t make sense of the deal, they may be hiding their intentions. If you were the rentor, would you offer the property for pennies of the dollar? 

If you pay such a low amount, expect to receive a proportional offer to that price. If you have to pay less at first, it may cost you far more later.

It helps to visit the property first to check if the price makes sense. The average price-to-rent ratio is a rough 1% of the property price. If numbers vary greatly, the rentor should be able to explain the cause. Otherwise, scam!

#7 Payment required

The moment you pay upfront, the rentor gets control over the deal. 

  • If you didn’t visit the property, you might not get any.
  • If the owner doesn’t finance necessary repairs before you pay, you will.
  • If you pay in cash, there’s no proof you did the transfer.

Some will request payment even though they can’t show the property. Others will negotiate the price down if you use their method and pay today. All those variations lead to the Nigerian Prince scam: pay one dollar now, get two dollars later.

Of course, rentors need upfront payments as proof that tenants can pay their bills. If the renter agrees, they should use an escrow service in case a party fails on the conditions.

Advance payments are only risky with an unsafe method (cash and wire transfers).

Types Of CraigsList Rental Scams

Types Of CraigsList Rental Scams

#1 Sneaky payment tactics

Everything looks right on paper despite a few minor concerns.

  • They demand payments too early.
  • They impose unconventional methods.
  • They refuse your preferred method, yet they have no logical reason to reject it.

Scammers don’t want fair deals. If you’re happy renting a home for half the average price, they’ll make you give money in other forms. 

  • The house you rent doesn’t look as advertised.
  • The rental property looks as advertised but hides expensive technical problems, making it unusable.
  • The contract you sign won’t let you rent. If you read the fine print, you committed to a security deposit to buy 100% of the property within a deadline.
  • You buy from someone who doesn’t own the home.

To get there, they may use wire fraud, fraudulent checks, chargebacks, or fake listings. 

#2 Escrow fraud

Here’s the catch: buyers don’t want to pay upfront. But if they don’t, the seller/rentor won’t know if they can afford it. Who should take the risk? None.

It helps for these cases to trust a third party without incentives about the deal. Take the most popular site, both parties set their conditions and deposit the funds. The intermediary only allows the transfers once both meet the terms.

It also means both have to trust the escrow company. If they allowed anyone, the middleman could keep the money and disappear.

As a rule of thumb, big firms with a long history are risk-free if we exclude, of course, imposters. You’d be surprised to know how easy it is to disguise as one. Impersonation makes safe and risky at the same time, depending on how scam-aware you are.

#3 Wrong contract

Here’s another responsible practice: keep copies of everything. 

  • You don’t know if the rentor will make a mistake or lose the papers.
  • You don’t know if they’ll change the terms/update the offer.
  • You don’t know their intentions. Without proof, they can charge you for almost anything.

The following scenario happens more often than you think. Imagine the same (fraudulent) rentor steals your identity or forges documents. Or perhaps they extracted your signature from a contract you signed.

If there are any changes you didn’t consent, copies help to back-up fast. If what you receive has nothing to do with the contract, it may not be a mistake. By that time, the scammer has stopped messaging.

#4 Faulty Broker

If you read our other guides, you may already be familiar with this type of scam. Here, a person lies about having something you want to buy. After showing some proof, victims believe he’s the owner.

Sometimes, they own it (pose as the real owner), sometimes they don’t (fake associate). They make all your requests go through them, and the owner perceives your ‘associate’ as another client. At other times, they may not know each other.

The middleman only talks to the owner when you, the “client,” request a visit, a phone call, or some documents for proof.

Mind that the landlord may not know of the many con men selling his listing. A scammer may have even stolen the landlord’s identity, so they can’t communicate (see email identity theft and call forwarding)

How To Prevent Craigslist Rental Scams?

How To Prevent Craigslist Rental Scams

Did you meet in person?

The best way to avoid identity theft is to visit the property together. Phone calls and emails work as fast communication but should not be the only option. 

Meet in person after the first contact, also preferably before the financial decision. If you close the deal with a realtor, have the owner double-check.

Did you check the rentor’s history?

How many properties do they rent? How many tenants have they had? How long have they been renting? More is better. 

The deal can go pretty awkward if:

  • You’re renting for the first time
  • You’re their first tenant ever

You can consult people with more experience. They may beware of Craigslist scams you aren’t yet.

Did you talk to multiple rentors?

Logic decisions don’t come from emotion. If you only found one option, you may fear that if you refuse, you won’t find any better properties.

If you can’t find others, you might need to revise your expectations. Before choosing your perfect home, make sure you reviewed enough locations.

Lastly, don’t pay much attention to listings and text messaging. Words mean very little without proof, especially on Craigslist.

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