Real Estate Listing Leads To Rental Scam

Just after Thanksgiving, reader Adam’s new renter showed up on his doorstep to look at the house and pick up her keys. The trouble is, while Adam’s house is for sale, it’s not for rent. The woman on his doorstep was the victim of an Internet rental scam.

The prospective renter found the house for rent on Craigslist. The script should be familiar to anyone who has seen a rental scam in action: the scammer was renting the house from his missionary job in Spain. The renter wired a deposit, then went to look at the house and pick up the keys.

Adam had contacted Craigslist repeatedly to have the listing for his house taken down. He told NBC Chicago that he saw the ad as an annoyance…and didn’t expect to have a scam victim turn up quite literally on his doorstep.

International Online Scam Targets Renters, Home Sellers (Warning: video starts automatically)


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  1. pinkbunnyslippers says:

    Is that common, to make a deposit and then go check out the unit? I mean, unless you’re leasing from a corporate housing company or are from out of state, really how common is this? Just curious from other people’s experiences…

    • ARP says:

      That may be their targets, people who are moving from out of the area. Also, if you have enough pictures up, maybe people feel confident that they know that they place is like.

    • speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

      I moved to this town from out of state, and I had someone here check out the apartment before I rented it. If I was in the same position again, without a friend to check out rental properties for me, I would not rely on a random ad. I would rather get there, shell out for a hotel room for a week or less, and look at the available places when I get there (I have a list of definite wants and not-wants so I can narrow them down by phone easily beforehand).

      I can definitely see how people get taken, though, and not everyone can afford a hotel room. If I was in that position, without funds for a hotel, I would contact CouchSurfers and ask for a week’s stay nearby.

      • RandomHookup says:

        At a minimum, you could use a real estate agency that specializes in rentals. Assuming you don’t do it in a really high cost area (SFO, NYC, Boston), the landlord pays a referral fee to the agency. That way you have a reliable middleman and mitigate a lot of the risk.

    • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

      Years ago, when I was in college I would sublet my apartment each summer when I was doing fieldwork. It was always done sight unseen to various graduate students from other states who had local internships. I’m sure we were both taking risks but I never had any problems.

      This was in the early 1990’s and done via a local housing usenet group.

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      Not common at all, but I’m guessing the people who fall for these scams aren’t the smartest of people either. They’re probably pretty clueless as to how renting typically works, don’t have any friends in the area, and sometimes the people who are scamming them really seem to know what they’re doing.

      I know some otherwise very smart people who could fall for internet scams just because they’re completely oblivious to the many scams that are out there and aren’t aware enough to realize somthing might not be on the level.

      • shoelace414 says:

        Did that cat kill and skin it’s own frog and now it wears it’s skin to warn off all it’s frog buddies?

      • Big Mama Pain says:

        Sorry, but you’re wrong about how ‘dumb’ it is for someone to fall for this. Moving from state to state with the military often requires signing a lease sight unseen and an upfront deposit, so the statement ‘not knowing how it works’ is midguided-it DOES work like that sometimes.

        • pecan 3.14159265 says:

          So you’re telling me that experienced renters would fall for this kind of thing? That a person who moves a lot would willingly wire $800 to Madrid, Spain on the word of someone who only seems to be the owner because he wrote the correct name on an email?

          People fall for these scams usually because they just don’t get the red flags that go up for others. They’re not as aware as to the many ways people can lie.

    • backinpgh says:

      I’m betting the house was also listed at waaaaay under market value, which apparently makes people act even dumber.

      • speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

        How could a house listed that far under market not signal “Something is wrong with me”?

        • ellemdee says:

          People jump into “I’d better hurry up and jump on this awesome deal before someone else gets it” mode.

    • tbax929 says:

      I rented my apartment sight unseen when I moved from PA to AZ; I had no choice. I couldn’t afford at the time to fly to Tucson to look at apartments since all of my money was going to go into the actual move.

      What I did differently, however, was rent from a large apartment complex for six months. I figured that would give me time to decide where I actually wanted to live. I would not rent sight unseen from an individual.

    • nosense22 says:

      I rented for a Summer Internship sight unseen, since it was out of state. I believe I paid a deposit & first month’s rent as well, before I picked up the keys (since the original renter was also out of state on an internship).

      I guess I was lucky, though.

    • reddbettie says:

      I lease apartments for a living, it is very common.

  2. swarrior216 says:

    Common sense sure is not working for her.

  3. Nogard13 says:

    Anyone who will buy (or rent) sight unseen deserves what they get.

    • tbax929 says:

      Every single person who rents sight unseen deserves what they get? Clearly you’ve never moved internationally or even cross-country. While it’s not ideal, sometimes you have no choice. I guess there’s no room for exceptions with you though, is there?

    • trish says:

      That’s so sad. Why does she deserve to get scammed? Not everyone is worldly-wise. Some of us think that when an ad says there’s a place for rent that there actually is a place.
      Of course, I’m trying to wise up, hence reading this site. But please do remember that there are some very nice people who simply don’t realize that the world isn’t always nice back.

    • tsukiotoshi says:

      I had to rent an apartment without seeing it when I moved to a different state and I totally got what I deserved: An awesome place with a bigass yard, great landlords, and housemates who ended up becoming some of the best friends I’ve ever had.

    • bdgbill says:

      I think the bigger mistake was using Craigslist for anything involving more than $50.00.

      Craigslist is for buying and selling stolen laptops and picking up 19 year old prostitutes, not finding a place to live.

      • NatalieErin says:

        In my city it’s basically the only place to look for apartments in the low-to-middle price range. It’s perfectly safe and useful as long as you actually go look at the apartment before spending any money.

  4. Engine-B says:

    I saw a lot of this while I was looking for a summer rental apartment in DC. I was naive at first and thought I had a great deal renting from someone who had moved out of their house quickly because they had been transferred to their company’s London office. It wasn’t until they asked me to wire them money that I realized it was a scam. After that, I got quite good at finding the scams on Craigslist and there sure were a lot of them!

  5. coffeeculture says:

    i see tons of these too…often i’d get the same reply w/names/addresses changed…both asked to wire funds to the UK.

  6. The cake is a lie! says:

    Typical Craigslist. There are more scams than legitimate sales on that site it seems. I am always overly cautious can suspicious of anything I do with craigslist. It has been remarkably helpful for me in the past, but I am just very careful with any business done through that site.

    • Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

      I know. Those women I hooked up with are always different from their picture, kinda skanky, and they always wanted money. I’m glad they closed down that dating site!

  7. Bativac says:

    It seems to me that anything involving the “wiring of money” is a scam. I mean how often does the average person “wire money” to somebody?

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      Well, all of the princes in Nigeria use wire. They must be onto something!

    • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

      i did yesterday for the first time. but it was to an international retailer i’ve made plenty of previous purchases from with a regular online payment. they are having temporary problems with their payment processor and had to switch to western union to take payments for a little while. it’s the previous experience with them for the last year and a half that makes it ok for me, but even so it felt kind of weird.

    • Karita says:

      Well, I wire money several times a week, but only for business. Banks are getting picky about how they will accept mortgage payoffs, and clients sometimes want/need their sales proceeds right away.

      I’ve wired a couple of times for personal reasons – once to a good friend who was short on funds, and once to a fellow attorney. I’ve also received one wire, since my bank was suspicious of me when I tried to deposit the same funds via a check.

      Overall, I’d be extremely cautious if someone was asking for a wire for just a few thousand dollars. Even a $10K wire would seem odd to me. It’s unnecessary, and a huge red flag. Most regular non-scammy people, in my experience, don’t have the first clue how to provide proper wiring instructions!

      • BBBB says:

        “Well, I wire money several times a week, but only for business. Banks are getting picky about how they will accept mortgage payoffs, and clients sometimes want/need their sales proceeds right away. “

        You are using a bank wire – very different beast than a Western Union “wire” that is requested in a scam.

    • kerry says:

      The “average” person probably doesn’t wire money a lot, but lower income individuals who don’t have checking accounts wire money frequently. Also, people supporting family out of the country wire money, too. Any neighborhood with a lot of currency exchanges likely has a lot of people who wire money, it wouldn’t be that crazy to imagine those same people falling for a low-cost rental scam.

  8. Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

    If you’re moving to a new area where you can’t check out the property in advance, you have several choices. Renting a motel room or other short term arrangement while you scout out new digs ( you can put your belonging in a storage unit while searching), or you can contact a Real estate agent who will help you, or know some one who can. Even getting online with a local newspaper classified ads is better than Craig’s list.

    Seriously, never rent property sight unseen from Craigs List, you’re just looking for trouble.

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      The forums at are very, very helpful. When we moved, that was the first place I went to to get opinions about where we were thinking of moving to, and people were very helpful. Obviously, YMMV, but if you’re moving to an unfamiliar place, it would be extremely helpful if someone told you that the apartment complex you were looking at had, oh say, a juvenile detention center half a mile away. These are things that don’t really show up in a leasing office’s advertising materials, ya now?

      Obviously one should still be wary of completely trusting the opinions of strangers when it comes to such important decisions, but if you can’t afford to travel to scope out the local properties and have no friends in the area, what else can you do?

      • Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

        Exactly this. RESEARCH FIRST, explore your options, then make educated decisions.

      • speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

        Be careful and listen to the people you ask to help you. I hired an apartment locator service to find me an apartment in a neighborhood literally fifteen minutes from my existing apartment, and they said they weren’t that familiar with the neighborhood but they would research it for me. I should have cut ties and looked for a locator service that was familiar with the neighborhood. Instead, I went with my locator and looked at a few apartments that looked clean and well-kept outside, and unfancy but acceptable on the inside, rented, moved in, and then found out by experience what kind of horrible neighborhood I moved into. Came to find out that the same leasing agent who swore blue that she checked criminal backgrounds started renting to felons with sex offense records three months after I moved in.

    • tbax929 says:

      I think the most important note in your post refers to renting via Craigslist. As I posted above, if you have to move sight unseen, it’s better to move into a large complex or, even as you suggested, rent a motel room temporarily. I don’t think it’s smart to rent from an individual sight unseen.

      Dealing with a complex, you can go online and read reviews, and most of them have pics on their websites so you have a better idea of what you’re getting.

  9. Back to waiting, but I did get a cute dragon ear cuff says:

    When I saw the headline, my over/ under was 5 sentences until Craigslist was mentioned. I took under.

    Came in at 4. Sorry Pecan, you would have had a free lunch next time you were in Gaithersburg.

  10. ellemdee says:

    There’s a different too-good-to-be-true rental scam that my sister & her husband got caught in. Luckily, they didn’t lose a deposit-sized amount of money, but the scammer is raking in the dough with this one. They saw a listing for a great apartment in Hawaii at a price that was lower than comparable units. They showed up for an open house, loved the place, and put in an app fot it. The one catch – there was an application fee. Seems like a small price to pay for the chance to get such a great deal, right? Well, they didn’t get the unit, but they did continue to see the unit holding open houses for months, collecting “application fees” from the long line of people who showed to for this too-good-to-be-true deal week after week. They probably made way more money collecting these fees and tossing the apps than they ever would have actually renting the place out.

    • richcreamerybutter says:

      Wow! Does Hawaii have very lax real estate laws? Application fees are normal in competitive RE areas, but I’m surprised they’ve been able to get away with this. Surely it would be easy to prove fraud in this case?

  11. Portlandia says:

    This happened A LOT when I was looking for vacation rentals in London last year.

    Virtually every ad was fake. All of them wanted you to wire a deposit before you got there. HELLS TO THE NO!!

    My friend who was traveling with me said, “They can’t rent an apartment that’s not theirs. Send them the money it’s safe” and flat out didn’t believe me that these were mostly scams.

    After going through three or four ads and having them all turn out to be scammers wanting Western Union deposits I decided to turn to a rental agency that had very good reviews online. We found a property, fixed a price and then the rental agency says “Okay, now you need to western union the owner a deposit and the full rental amount. She’s in Africa on holiday and will have someone meet you with keys when you arrive”. What?????? Even the lady at the rental place didn’t see that I had a problem with this. I finally found a rental through a trusted site I’ve used in the past. Paid more but new it was secure.

    I couldn’t believe how so many people fall for this. If it’s too go to be true and if you have no recourse after submitting your deposit WALK AWAY!!

  12. richcreamerybutter says:

    Hahaha, the last time I saw one of these “ads” it too involved a missionary in Europe! For some reason, these scams artists can’t resist religious themes (I bet they also signed off “god bless”).

    Obviously, never ever pay for an apartment from a private owner/subletter remotely unless they’re registered with a legitimate agency (a couple of the reputable short-term agencies here in NYC come to mind).

    If you have other suspicions, examine the photos; if they look too “stock photo-ish” or professional, they might have grabbed them from another source. Even the home grown pics of a seemingly lived-in residence might have originated in a real ad. Just for fun, view/download the image and copy/paste the exact name (for instance, “IMG_5063.jpg”) in Google images and see if any duplicates appear. Scam artists are often too lazy to rename them.

    • richcreamerybutter says:

      Correction – don’t pay remotely as in the “wired by Western Union” way, but only if the transaction can be guaranteed or protected by a third party. Granted, this is more for short-term and vacation rentals.

      Here’s what has to say about scams in their FAQ:

      “Your payment is not released until 24 hours after you check into your accommodations. That means that if anything were to be wrong, you could contact us and we would redirect you to something else. We want to assure you that, because this process is in place, scammers don’t really waste time with us. Please note: The only way you become unprotected by Airbnb is if you were to move a transaction offline of our website.”

    • NatalieErin says:

      Sometimes they just make stupid mistakes. I saw one in my city, Minneapolis, that had obviously tropical plants visible through the windows.

    • Corndolf says:

      The one we encountered recently was a “missionary in Africa” — using a real mission group’s name — apparently in such frequent use that as we found out, the missionary organization actually has a disclaimer on the front page of its website that none of its missionaries are renting out houses in the U.S.!

      As I recall, we didn’t even encounter the scam on Craigslist, but some other rental listing site — fortunately the terms of the scam as I later learned them are sketchy enough that I don’t think we would have been drawn in very far, but we were immediately tipped off when two of the properties in the area we inquired about gave us the same cut and paste, broken english information (we own the house but are at x mission in Africa), from two different e-mail addresses.

  13. framitz says:

    For some reason I misread the headline as “Real Estate Listing Leads To Rectal Scan” on first glance.

    I can’t imagine making a deposit without seeing the property first.

  14. AllanG54 says:

    Two words….dumb b…h.

  15. dourdan says:

    that is odd. my grandma is a land lord for an apartmernt comples and just last month we had an opening. the people who applied has to fill out all knids of legal paperwork before getting considered.

    • Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

      And there it is: Double scam alert.
      Not only can you get taken for your security deposit and first / last month’s rent, they could also ask you to fill out a rental application – including ss#, etc, and steal your identity.

      Now you’ve got no money, no credit and no place to live.
      Like I said, RESEARCH, and don’t rent from strangers sight unseen on craigslist!

  16. dolemite says:

    I’d be like “ok, you can rent 1 bedroom for $400 a month.”

  17. Daniellethm says:

    I think the first mistake was using craigslist. When I moved out of state I checked first to look at a few places in the area, then I called about 4 different apartment complexes (They have houses on too, but an apartment was better suited to my needs) and scheduled to see them all on the same weekend. My husband and I drove down for the weekend, got a hotel and checked them all out. By Sunday we had found one we liked, signed the lease in our prospective apartment and paid the first month’s rent and security deposit.

    On top of that, had a offer for new users, if you sign a lease for a place that you found through them you got a free $100 visa gift card. Not sure if they still do that, but I highly recommend that site for previewing rentals.

  18. Keith is checking the Best Buy receipt of a breastfeeding mother (for tips!) says:

    Was she hot?

  19. Purr says:

    For the record, this is a lot more common than the newscast implies. My Realtor who is selling a property in Idaho and Eastern Washington has had her ads hijacked for this scam. She reports them to law enforcement, but nothing can be done. Since Craigslist does not regulate their ads, there is no way around it. She only found out because a person called her directly to check on the situation as she had been corresponding through the Cragislist anonymizer.

    Your best bet as a business person or house seller is to always check Craigslist to see if your data is coming up in someone else’s ads. I’m sure watching my own.

    As a buyer or renter, I’m extremely leery of Craigslist and pass on a lot of TGTBT ads.