Rentals in Baltimore>Question Details

Michael Kupr…, Real Estate Pro in Baltimore, MD

What can we do about the epidemic of Craigslist scams?

Asked by Michael Kupritz, Baltimore, MD Fri Jul 20, 2012

Every time I put a rental listing on the market, it gets picked up by legitimate sources like Trulia. It also gets picked up by con artists operating on Craigslist. The typical con goes like this: The property is advertised using all the info and photos I supplied, but at a much lower price. When people write to the bogus owner, they are told to send money in exchange for the keys, or something along those lines. The "owner" is out of the country and can't show the property, etc.

One caller (after finding my real contact info on Trulia) said that 4 out of 5 ads she responded to on Craigslist were scams.

Innocent consumers are getting conned. What can we do, as a community, to make this stop?

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Answers

18
Don Tepper’s answer
Sure, Craigslist facilitates the scammers. But as already noted, if Craigslist cracked down, the scammers would use other outlets. And as for the suggestion to charge a minimal amount--say $1--for each Craigslist listing: That wouldn't help. If a scammer can make $400-$700 or more on one successful scam, I don't think $1 is going to stop him.

I'm going to take a really, really unpopular position here. Brace yourselves.

Many of those consumers aren't innocent. As BuyBaltimoreProperties says, "The 3 or 4 folks who we spoke to all said they had that funny feeling that something wasn't right and there were several red flags...definitely the whole "too good to be true" thought crossed their mind."

Take a look at other postings here on Trulia, or on Zillow. Lots of consumers know there's something wrong, that it's "too good to be true," that there are numerous red flags (owner out of the country, etc.), but they do it anyway. Why? Because some of them are greedy. Some of them are bargain shoppers blinded by an impossibly good bargain. Because most are willing to overlook those red flags. And while Craigslist facilitates the scammers, Craigslist does have warnings posted all over its site about the scams. Those being scammed have read the warnings. Many have this bit of uncertainty gnawing away at them, but they overlook it because of the apparently great bargain.

And some folks are just plain stupid. Look: Imagine you want to rent a property in a distant city. (Tina makes a good point about people from out of town not knowing whether the rent should be $600 or $1,200. But most of these scams work because the renter knows it's a bargain . . . even a steal.) So what do you do? Well, maybe take a cheap flight or drive to the property to view it. Even if it's a legitimate rental, there's the question about the condition of the property, the neighborhood, etc. Doesn't it make sense to at least check a property out? Sure: Whether it's advertised on Craigslist or on Realtor.com. If you can't check it out, you have someone you trust check it out. And that means inside as well as outside. Folks: That's just plain common sense.

Bottom line: There's only so much you can do. You can yell over and over about scams and provide guidelines on how to detect them. You can tell renters what process to follow when renting. You can tell them (though you shouldn't have to) that they should check out a place before renting it. You can tell them that if it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is. You can tell them, ahem, to use a Realtor in real estate transactions. But if you do all that and they still insist on sending close to $1,000 away to someone they've never met or talked to for a place they've never seen or checked out, then a fair amount of responsibility falls on them. Yes, it's still a crime, and I'm not solely blaming the victim. But the crime was easily avoided. But a victim's greed and stupidity remain two of the criminal's best tools.
2 votes Thank Flag Link Tue Jul 24, 2012
I said to one lady I spoke to who got duped for $900 "The monthly rate for that home is $2495/mo. At least they didn't ask you for $1500 or more" (I know a pitiful attempt to try to say something positive). Her response was "Oh I NEVER would have sent THAT MUCH over". I remember hanging up the phone thinking "but you still sent over NINE HUNDRED DOLLARS". I feel critical of her, but sorry for the family that suffers for her bad, bad decision...of which I have a feeling such decisions are likely not a rare occurrence when it comes to finances. So unfortunate, but what can I do?
Flag Tue Jul 24, 2012
Hi Don, once again, you have an excellent post (which I always enjoy reading)!

I'm a big supporter of people experiencing the appropriate consequences for their decisions...both the good ones & the bad ones. Although a part of me can't help but feel sorry for those that get duped, I think sometimes a bigger part of me thinks "Well, hopefully you'll learn your lesson" and it reminds of something I read that says if you distributed the wealth evenly across the world, it would only be a matter of 2 years (or maybe it was 5 years) before the vast majority of the wealth was back in the possession of the minority (it was either 1 or 5%)...sorry, I know I butchered the quote even in my paraphrasing.
Flag Tue Jul 24, 2012
Don Tepper, Real Estate Pro in Burke, VA
MVP'08
Contact
When I asked this question, I assumed most of the responses would include helpful suggestions about protecting consumers from being conned. It is interesting to see how many real estate agents still take the attitude of "let the buyer beware" and hold consumers responsible for having expertise in our profession. I prefer the "least sophisticated consumer" standard. It's a legal term, but the basic idea is that advertising should never be misleading, especially to those who lack street smarts. I would hope that the agents who believe consumers who fall for these scams get what they deserve may develop a tiny bit of compassion one day. The autistic man who works at the local home improvement center does not deserve to be conned. The marine who is protecting our country overseas and can't inspect the property personally does not deserve to be conned. The single mother who never handled the finances until her husband died from pancreatic cancer doesn't deserve to be conned.

We are the professionals. It is up to us to protect consumers.

I like Annette's suggestion of posting a sign in the window. Mine might read, "This property is not advertised on Craigslist. Any posting you may have seen there is a scam." Or, how about just posting the listing in the window? This solution isn't perfect -- it will only work if the prospect is able to visit the property -- but it's a start.
1 vote Thank Flag Link Mon Jul 30, 2012
Hey Michael, thanks for the compassion reminder! Many times it's easy to feel jaded and hardened when you see the dark side of folks several times a day. My 85 year old mother-in-law is very sharp and is quite active online. Unfortunately, it's taken her 2 laptops crashing for her to really understand that you can't click on ANY unknown links. Although very advanced for her age in terms of being online, it's a total shame that she has to learn all this the hard way...she's as innocent as it gets!
Flag Mon Jul 30, 2012
#1. Post on inside of front exterior window an appropriate notice:
""This home is FOR SALE
NOT for rent or lease or option."

#2. Include in Notice:
You MUST contact the Listing agent to avoid fraudulent activity. (123)456-7890

There is no help for those who would send money and not even visit the property where your notices are clearly displayed.

Be very much aware, the consumer DOES have a choice. They always do.
They can get there real estate data from Zillow if they choose?
They can think assessed value equals market value? IT's their choice.
They can ask for guidance from professionals or Uncle Bob?
They can go to aggregate websites notorious for predatory activity or access sites where the data has integrity. The choice is always theirs...however, ...we must accept they own the consequences also.

It isn't as if they don't know the alternatives.They aren't really 'innocent bystanders.' They impose their preferences...however illogical, and they get what they get.

The choice of using a professional always exists.

Best of success to you all,
Annette Lawrence, Broker/Associate
Remax Realtec Group, Pam Harbor, FL
727.420.4041
Let's chat real estate at: http:///www.RealEstateMadeEZ.us
1 vote Thank Flag Link Mon Jul 30, 2012
It is bad here in Richmond as well. I have been assisting several families with long distance moves and the first couple had made a call on a house for rent from Craigslist and the person asked them to send them the deposit directly (certified funds) and get an agent to let them into the house when they get into town as there was a lockbox on the house. I looked it up in the MLS and the property was for sale, but vacant (obviously from the photos). I called the listing agent and he said it was definitely a scam. My client reported it to the FBI, but who knows what happened after that.

I went on Craigslist recently (which I NEVER use for my listings because of the scams) and was looking for a rental for some clients that are moving here from out of state as there is not much on the MLS now. Every other ad was an obvious scam. Rents at $600 & $700 a month with an 888 number attached for homes that would rent for at least $1,200 - I knew it was a scam. How do others that are moving from another state know? It is unreal to me how these people are allowed to do this. "Craig" needs to be more diligent with his listing process to protect the public if he expects people to take his site seriously. It is really scary to me that these crooks are able to continually pull off these scams. And most of the time, it is to innocent people that really can't afford to lose the money.
1 vote Thank Flag Link Sun Jul 22, 2012
Thank you for the answers so far. I bet if Craigslist charged $1 for real estate listings, the scams would stop immediatley. What do you think?

Veriftying ownership doesn't sound like something Craig Newmark would ever want to do.

But we can't change Craigslist, can we? Chances are we'll have to think of a solution we can implement ourselves.
1 vote Thank Flag Link Fri Jul 20, 2012
Hi Michael,

Unfortunately there is nothing you can do. I had this start happening several years ago with every one of my listings. The scammers even set up yahoo and hot mail accounts with my persona name. I had to send notarized statements and copies of my DL to get those accounts shut down.

I tried to get a story out on the local news and they never returned my e-mails. I contacted local authorities who couldn't help. And I even had a computer specialist track the IP addresses to Nigeria but no one could take effective action.

I let my web visitors know that if a deal looks too good to be true, if the owner can not show you the house in person or via a representative and if they ask you to wire money in exchange for keys it is most definitely a scam.
1 vote Thank Flag Link Fri Jul 20, 2012
Michael,

The problem is real and your intentions are well intended.....but, as others have indicated a good solution is not easily come by.

At this point, probably our best approach is to warn people that need to use these services that great care should be taken to avoid being exploited. This may not be the best approach but for now it should help.

Thanks,

Bill
0 votes Thank Flag Link Mon Jul 30, 2012
It is very sad that innocent consumers are getting ripped off. We recently had a large article is our newpaper warning about exactly this issue. And to make matters worse the scammers are hurting the honest advertisers on the site.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Mon Jul 30, 2012
I find it really sad on many levels. Craig's List used to be a valuable tool, but these days the scammers are running amok and rendering the service nearly useless. It's also sad to me that people fall for these scams, even after all the warnings, including on big banners ON Craig's List! And, of course, it's sad there are vermin who would prey upon their fellow man. Okay, I'm better now...
0 votes Thank Flag Link Mon Jul 30, 2012
Unfortunately, like most ads, the “scam rental ads” are appealing and give a false sense of hope. They advertise single family homes at affordable rental prices in quiet, safe neighborhoods. Who doesn’t want that?! So, we take a gamble and hope it works out for the best. But, it is up to the renter on how much of a gamble they are willing to make. It’s also up to the renter to do a little extra investigative work on all of the properties that peek their interest.

The scammers post the addresses when they send follow-up emails. Look them up online, either through real estate websites or even your county assessor’s or deeds websites. Renters can find out who the actual owner is or the realtor in charge of the property. Scammers even supply their supposed names, and in some cases the “good will” organizations they work for. Renters can perform searches on that information to see if anyone else has had any propblems them.

Make Craigslist become the scammers worst nightmare. Since it's free to set up an account ( in most cases), if anyone comes across a scam ad, create a post on Craigslist with the full details of what you found out. Include the name the inidividual gave, as well as, any other pertinent inofrmation.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Mon Jul 30, 2012
I started doing that, posting the scam ad on FB, but since we market to CL owners every day using an automated software, we were getting at least a dozen scam responses every day & still do. Unfortunately, don't have the time to continue to do that. Tthe scammers are automated as well as they hijack listings in small towns & big cities alike.
Flag Mon Jul 30, 2012
Good responses, guys.

It does seem likely that this is a nationwide problem, so perhaps getting NAR involved is the way to go. But that begs the question: Is there something NAR can do about it? If it were to lean on Craig, what would NAR want him to do? What would NAR want law enforcement officials to do?

I like the warnings Keith and Shannon French insert in their listings, but it seems pretty easy for a con artist to remove them when re-posting on Craigslist. Maybe there's a more subtle way? One that only renters can see? A shibboleth!
0 votes Thank Flag Link Mon Jul 23, 2012
Not only is it a risk for the "potential tenants" but it is also a risk for the homeowner who's property is advertised falsely. I had someone call me to verify a property because the scammer told her to "go by and look in the windows" of the home when she said she wouldn't send money without previewing the property first. It was NOT vacant. There has to be a level where something can be done. I bet if we all made noise and rallied NAR to get involved something would happen.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Mon Jul 23, 2012
Yes, we see these ALL the time and have seen them get more sophisticated (i.e. looking up public record to get the owner of record & setting up an email address to look legitimate and also having a # to call to speak to I'm assuming a very persuasive person).

It's been over a year since we've heard of anyone fall for one, but about two years ago, we got a call about once a quarter by someone who got duped...one was waiting outside the home with her moving truck full of her stuff waiting for someone to deliver the keys. She was just in tears when we broke her the bad news.

The 3 or 4 folks who we spoke to all said they had that funny feeling that something wasn't right and there were several red flags...definitely the whole "too good to be true" thought crossed their mind. Each of them lost anywhere from $700-$900 to them directly (I'm sure they suffered many indirect costs as well).

These scams are prolific because they are making money for the scammers...in other words, people are falling for them every day. Otherwise they wouldn't do it. I'm convinced they've profiled the most likely "sucker" and understand the price point that people are willing to risk to trust some religion affiliated stranger. It's sad because that target includes those that are backed up against the wall or distressed in some way...a time when it's more likely they'll compromise on their better judgement.

We've had a cop friend look into it and ultimately saw nothing could be done. We just flag the ads & get anyone who sees them to flag it as well. We advertise on all of our listings to never wire funds overseas and any other listing advertising this for less is not legitimate. Now we're seeing the scam ads include something warning of scams as well.

As others have mentioned, it's a peril of a free service. Charging for listings is probably the only way to minimize the scams.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Sun Jul 22, 2012
Laura, perhaps if you earned just one more designation? Seriously, though, I'm surprised they were brazen enough to register your name. I'm also surprised the local media wouldn't pick up the story.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Fri Jul 20, 2012
Laura,

A IP address from Nigeria.....what a surprise!!!
0 votes Thank Flag Link Fri Jul 20, 2012
It really is a Craigslist problem and if they want to fix it they can. For example, I advertise realty services under the Services section. I have to put in my license number. Brokers advertising the the For Sale Section should have to do the same. It is the private listings that slip by. In some cities Craigslist charges for real estate listings. Maybe they should do the same in Baltimore and use the money to beef up security and verification. It's not that hard to do.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Fri Jul 20, 2012
It is so true; and many of these scammers are stealing For Sale listings as well. I had a call as recently as today. A 550k house for sale was being advertised for $700/month. Can you imagine?!

Even if we stop using Craigslist; the scammers will steal our listings off Realtor.com or some other site. Best we can do is flag them as spam; but heck - that could be a full-time job!
0 votes Thank Flag Link Fri Jul 20, 2012
How about stop using Craigslist?
0 votes Thank Flag Link Fri Jul 20, 2012
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