If you're a buyer, renter, seller, or landlord, Craigslist could be the place where you find your real estate soul mate. Apartment rentals, shared accommodation, and real estate sales are all advertised on Craigslist, which is one of the most popular sites on the web. Property listings have in fact become so popular on the website that real estate related advertisements have increased by about 70%, according to Craigslist CEO, Jim Buckmaster. Unfortunately, like so many other websites, Craigslist is vulnerable to scam artists, so it's important to have a critical eye when replying to any real estate related advertisement.
The most common rental scam on Craigslist goes something like this: say you're looking for a house or apartment to rent. You find an advertisement for a place that's located in your preferred neighbourhood, and is available at an excellent price. You feel confident that the ad is legitimate because it's professional looking, and includes photos and details of the property. You contact the poster to express interest in the home, and they quickly reply.
The poster says that they're very happy to hear from you; that you sound like a nice, responsible person. They're grateful to you because they love their home, but have had to leave the country because of business or personal reasons. If you send them a deposit, they'll be happy to mail you the key. Naturally, you send the money, but no key arrives in the mail. What happened? You got scammed.
In another rental scam, you respond to an ad, and the poster agrees to show you the property. You view the place in person, and all seems well. The landlord asks for a deposit, which you give him. Later on you find out that the person who showed you the property is not the actual owner. You're now out both the money and the place.
To make his ad look legitimate, he copied details from another online ad or from the MLS itself, and created his own advertisement. He also met you in person, seemed friendly, and showed you the property. Unless your instincts are really sharp, it would be hard to detect this person as a scammer.
In some cases, the scam artist is able to gain entry into a home thanks to finding details about the lockbox (with a key to the property) on the MLS. If that information is inaccessible to him, he will either break into the house, or show you just the exterior of the property-with a convenient excuse as to why you can't see the inside (the current tenant is ill; the place is being fumigated, etc.). Often, the price listed for these places is so attractive that people turn a blind-eye to any suspicious behaviour.
You're not immune to Craigslist scams if you're trying to sell or rent out your home either. The most prevalent type of fraud involves an out-of-country buyer (or renter) who responds to your ad. They say they want the property, and to ensure that you hold it for them, they'll send you a cheque or money order for the deposit.
The transaction gets fishy when they say that they need to send you a money order for more than the deposit amount, with a request that you wire them back the difference. For instance, rather than sending a money order for just the $1000 deposit, they tell you an elaborate story about why they need to send a money order for $3000 instead. They'll ask you to take out your $1000 and send them back the difference via bank transaction. You receive the money order as planned, and agree to wire them the difference. Soon you receive a call from your bank saying that the money order was a fake, and that you're liable for the fraudulent money order. You're now out the money you wired to the con artist, in addition to owing the bank money. The scammer on the other hand, is laughing all the way to the bank.
You may feel that these scams are fairly obvious to spot, but con artists are notorious for pulling on victims' heartstrings and for making things appear legitimate. They're very good at what they do, and have successfully taken people for thousands of dollars.
To avoid being taken advantage of, it's critical to only deal with people that are based in your area; you need to be able to meet in person. According to Craigslist, "you will avoid 99% of the scam attempts on Craigslist" by insisting that you meet in person before exchanging money or personal information.
If you're a renter or buyer, you'll also want to check with your local property records office to make sure that the seller you're in contact with is in fact the owner.
While the internet can be a scary place, it is easy to protect yourself from fraud. Remember to never give out personal information like your bank account number, and be extra careful if the person you're dealing with is located in another country. Meet them in person, ask for ID, and always trust your gut instinct.