In October 2013, a woman from Southeast Iowa contacted me about a house she saw for rent. She wanted to move to Clinton and looked for a house by searching ads on Craigslist. I’ve written before about Craigslist. It’s a great way to buy and sell, at no charge, but you really need to be careful who you deal with.
The woman responded to the Craigslist ad, showing a house for rent in Clinton. She corresponded with the owner, who said he was out of town, serving on a mission trip in Alabama. He wanted $400 wired to him before agreeing to show the house. He planned to use this as the deposit if the woman signed the rental contract. The woman smelled a rat, and called me for advice.
I learned a property management company from Davenport owned this property, so I contacted them. They did not list it for rental. It seems someone found a photo of the house and used it to create a phantom rental ad on Craigslist. The property owner contacted Craigslist, who flagged and de-activated the listing. The property management company told me this type of thing happened repeatedly to them.
This anecdote illustrates the rental listing scam perfectly. Scammers know many people use online sites to look for apartment, house or vacation lodging rentals. They put themselves in the position to run a scam by hijacking real ads. They do this by finding a real ad online or in the real-estate listings, changing the email address or contact information, and running the altered ad on some other online site. Or they create a phantom rental, which is what happened to the woman who called me. Scammers created a listing for a place not for rent and advertised it.
How do you know if these ads are a scam? The surest sign of a scam is when the “property owner” wants the customer to wire money to pay for a security deposit, application fee, some portion of the initial rent payment or some other fee. I wrote many times on the pitfalls of using wire transfer services such as Western Union or Moneygram, and my advice is the same all the time. Don’t touch the wire.