Written by attorney Thomas O. Moens

Craigslist Rental Scam

This scam is often the result of an ad on craigslist, but it could happen with any advertised property. A house is listed as available for rent on craigslist. The owner is out of town/out of the country. The owner wants you to send the money, and then he or she will send you keys. Apparently, some people have even received keys. Unfortunately, the keys did not fit the house. Because the owner is out of town/country, the potential scammees, er, tenants cannot inspect the property. Most people who live out of the country are going to have someone locally who will manage the property, so the fact that you need to send money to South Africa to get keys is a huge red flag. If there is no one in town to manage the property, who has been cutting the grass, who shoveled the sidewalks, who raked the leaves, who stopped by to make sure the pipes did not freeze this winter? Also, who in their right mind is going to rent a house they have not seen? Obviously, anyone who was serious about renting their house to someone would have arrangements in place to let potential tenants in the house to inspect it. Why would a reputable landlord want to rent to someone who was so desperate they would rent a house without seeing it? Another red flag: if the price is too good to be true, it probably is not true. If you are still adamant that you want to rent this place, some suggestions. One way you might be able to flush out a scammer: Rather than send money to South Africa and hope you get keys back, you could suggest using a local escrow agent, such as an attorney. Tell the owner that you would deposit the money with the attorney and the owner should send the keys to the attorney. When the attorney has both the money from you and the keys from the owner, and you have had an opportunity to inspect the property, the keys would be delivered to you and the money forwarded to the owner. My guess is that if you suggest this, it will be the last you will hear from the "owner." If the individual is reputable, he or she should have no problem with an arrangement like this, since you are both protected. Depending on where the property was located, there might be very detailed satellite and ground level photographs available at which can help you. Take a look at what is available, and try asking dumb questions of the "owner" to see if they verify what is on the maps and photos. For example, if the house does not have a pool, ask the if there is a pool, expressing how important it is that you have a pool. If there is a street level view (click on the little gold man at the top of the scale tool), you will even be able to tell what color the house is, how many trees, etc. Ask the owner and see if he or she knows some of these details. Any owner will know the color of their own house. Ask how many houses in the neighborhood, how close to the interstate, closest grocery store--things an owner would know and a scammer would not. There are a couple things you can do check ownership, however this will only be useful if the scammer was not smart enough to find out the actual owner's name. For most properties in Iowa, you can check the following websites (most cities, counties, or states have similar information available): Some of the scammers are using houses which are for sale, which would be another red flag. Most (but not all) people selling their houses are not interested in renting them. You may be able to look up the property on a local multiple listing service or fsbo website to see if it is listed. There should be information to contact the listing agent who would know if the owner was trying to rent the property. Be careful, even when following these suggestions. Scammers are very good at explaining things away.

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