Craigslist Fraud. A new study from New York University found that 1.5% of all Craigslist rentals ads in the United States are scams and that more than 50% of these fraudulent ads go undetected by Craigslist. I’m pretty sure that a lot more than 1.5% of Craigslist rental ads in the San Francisco bay area are scams. That is because there is a serious shortage of rental housing in this area, and prospective tenants sometimes get desperate.
The Needless Credit Report. The most common rental scam is the needless credit report. It works this way. A crook creates a Craigslist rental ad for an actual property, but not a property that he owns or manages. To attract victims, the crook makes the rental look like a huge bargain. The ad says that in order to rent the apartment, you have to fill out an online application form and submit a credit report. The ad directs prospective tenants to a shady credit agency – a credit agency that is cahoots with the scammer. (You can tell I am old because I still use words like ‘cahoots.’) This agency sells you an overpriced credit report and then splits the money with the scammer, leaving you with a useless credit report. (I am writing this article because a number of my tenants are graduating soon and will be moving out.) How can you avoid this scam? It is very simple. Get a free credit report and make copies of it before you go looking for a place to rent. Giving a prospective landlord a copy of your credit report along with your application gives you an edge over other applicants. It makes you look better prepared and more businesslike.
Free Credit Reports. By Federal law, you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report once every year from each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. These 3 companies jointly operate a web site: AnnualCreditReport.com where you can get free credit reports from each of these companies at no cost to you and with no strings attached. Unfortunately, spam e-mails and TV advertising direct consumers to look-alike web sites. These look-alike sites appear to offer free credit reports, but they are usually expensive credit monitoring services instead. In order to get a so-called ‘free credit report’ from these companies, you usually have to give them your credit card number first, after which, they charge your credit card every month for credit monitoring, whether you want this service or not. Stopping the automatic monthly billing to your credit card with some of these companies can be difficult. Here are some tips for getting really free credit reports.
- Only go to: AnnualCreditReport.com. Watch your spelling carefully when you go to this site. There are a lot of phony ‘free credit report’ web sites and many of them have names that are just one letter away from the real thing. Never respond to e-mails or TV ads for free credit reports.
- Space out your three free credit reports over a year. This will allow you see changes that occur over time.
- Print out your credit report as soon as you see it on your monitor. You may not be able to gain free access to it later. Its good to have a printed copy of your credit report on hand anyway, even if you are not looking for a rental. You may find it useful when applying for a job or loan.
- After you have your credit report, quit your browser if you are at a computer that is shared or accessible by other people.
If 10 years ago an applicant for an apartment asked me to show him evidence that I owned the building I was renting, I would have thought that he was some kind of nut, but Craigslist rental scams are now so common that I don’t think that a request like this is unreasonable. I told this guy that I would bring a copy of my current property tax bill with me when I showed him the apartment, which I did. I think requests like this are going to become more and more common in the future. I am sure that there are landlords who would be offended by a request like this, but not me. Craigslist provides a wonderful service for both landlords and tenants, and a free service at that; however, Craigslist does not vet the listings on their web site, and unfortunately, there are a lot of very smart people in this world who spend their lives figuring out new ways to cheat and rob other people, and it seems like almost all of them know how to use Craigslist.
I have often wondered why so many apartment ads on Craigslist contain no photos. Of course, some landlords may just be lazy, but I think the main reason for this is that there are a lot of very elderly landlords who have no technological skills at all. I know people who don’t know how to use a digital camera or how to upload photos from a camera to a computer.
On the other hand, some apartment ads contain no photos for good reason. There are landlords who, as a matter of policy, do not clean vacant apartments before offering them for rent. This is unfortunately quite common here in Berkeley. If a landlord is renting an apartment that was trashed by the last tenant, and he has no intention of cleaning the place up, he is probably not going to include photos in his listing. Below is a photo that one landlord included in a listing for a ‘Charming 2 Bedroom Apartment Near Campus.’ It seems to me that this guy could have at least closed the oven door and removed the mattress from the kitchen floor before photographing this depressing room! The photos of the other rooms weren’t any better. The photo of the living room showed rat traps scattered around the room. One of the traps appeared to have a dead rat in it, but the room was so dark that it was hard to be sure. I think this landlord’s definition of the word ‘charming’ must be quite different from mine.
What could be worse than the listing above? How about this one. Below is a photo taken from an ad for a house for sale in Raleigh, North Carolina. An old man lived alone in this house. He died on the living room floor. If you look at the photo carefully, you can clearly see the silhouette of his corpse on the floor. The house sold for substantially below the list price.