You may have heard the story. Just a few weeks ago, on December 4, a 32-year-old Iraq war veteran named James Vester was shot to death after responding to a Craigslist ad for an iPad, which he intended to purchase as a Christmas gift for a parent. He drove to a parking lot on the west side of Indianapolis to meet the “seller,” only to be robbed and murdered shortly after his arrival. Two young men, ages 18 and 19, have been charged in the case.
Sadly, stories like this one are all too common. Scams on websites such as Craigslist target unsuspecting individuals who find themselves caught up in the lure of a supposedly great deal, only to be swindled, robbed, beaten—or worse.
When it comes to renting or buying a home, you should be aware that landlords and sellers who list properties on sites like Craigslist can be especially ruthless, so it’s important to know what to watch for and what to do if you find yourself the victim of a fraudulent listing. Following are a few of the most important red flags to watch for.
- The property’s representative is unable to meet with you in person. You should always be confident that you’re dealing directly with the property’s owner or a legitimate representative. Landlord and seller impersonation happens more often than you would think, and even the smartest of renters and buyers have fallen prey to silver-tongued con artists like these. If they claim to work for a real estate company, call the office and double check. And don’t forget that you can use the same thing you used to find the property to check out the person with whom you are dealing: The Internet is a powerful thing, and a quick Google search can literally be a lifesaver.
- The property they show you is different than the one you saw online. It goes like this: You’ve been looking around online for the perfect place for weeks, and you’ve finally found it. Great neighborhood, great school district, perfect square footage, and a fenced-in yard for Fido. But when you arrange to meet with the landlord or seller, you’re told that that particular property is not available, but another one is. This other property will most likely be either a.) more expensive or b.) in far worse condition and/or in a much less desirable neighborhood. Tell them you aren’t interested and start your search over.
- They’re asking for money early on. Never hand over your hard-earned money before you’ve verified that you are dealing with a legitimate representative, you’ve seen the property itself, and, ideally, you’ve had a real estate attorney look over all the attendant paperwork. If they’re asking for money up front, you should be suspicious. Don’t give them a dime until you’re 100% positive that the property you’ve seen is the property you’ll be renting or buying, and that there won’t be any surprises down the road.
- They’re asking you to wire money. If you’re being asked to wire money, especially before you’ve seen a property in person or been able to verify the identity of the landlord or seller, don’t. Odds are, the person you’re dealing with is not the actual landlord or seller and they’re trying to unload a property—maybe even a fictitious one—that they have no claim to. Again, always verify that you’re dealing with a legitimate representative of the property. Google is your best friend.
- Most important, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. $700 a month for a four-bedroom house with walk-in closets and granite countertops in the best part of town? $90k for a fully remodeled two-story house with a swimming pool and a three-car garage? Such supposed “steals” may sound tempting, but use your common sense: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Arm yourself with information. Do a little research so you know what other properties in the area are going for so you can compare.
Many of the people orchestrating these scams are highly skilled and extremely persuasive, which can make it difficult to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. But you don’t have to be a victim. Remember:
- Always ask landlords and other agents for identification, especially if you’ve found them on Craigslist.
- Trust but verify, and pay attention to your instincts. If you have a bad feeling, go with your gut.
- Never let anyone pressure you into signing anything.
- Use the Internet to confirm information about the property as well as the landlord or seller.
- Be leery of middlemen—ideally, you should always work with the property’s owner directly.
- Rely on a licensed real estate agent or a real estate attorney to help you find the best property at the best price and eliminate the chance of being duped by a Craigslist scam.