I got an email today from someone looking to sublet an NYC apartment this summer, and of course, I suggested good ol’ Craigslist. There are more listings on that site than anywhere else (for the general public, anyway). Plus, the lack of formality can make the site less stressful to use than real estate companies’ websites or other online apartment-finders. Still, “the Craigslist method” of apartment hunting is riddled with problems, not the least of which is fake ads. Craigslist pulls these fake ads down if they get flagged for removal by users, but it’s impossible to catch every offending post. So, as a user, the best thing you can do is to learn what to watch out for. In simply knowing the tell-tale signs of a fishy ad, you can save yourself tons of time and energy. Who knows? Maybe your search can be as painless as mine was when I moved to Harlem (the apartment I moved into was the first one and only one I saw).
Below, I’ve listed a couple of the signs of a scam. Some of this may sound confusing, and that’s because the goal of scams IS to confuse you. You might read by examples and go, “But wait, that doesn’t make any sense!” You’d be correct, but people fall for these ads all the time, no matter how ridiculous they seem. There is nothing straight-forward about what scammers do. So, try to follow me here, as I describe the twisted logic of fake listings:
Total fakeness #1: The Misrepresentation
There are real estate companies – real ones and fake ones – that like to stretch the truth when posting on Craigslist. One oft-used tactic is to mis-categorize listings. Studios and junior-1s will be listed as 1BRs. You might go to see a place that is called a 1BR on the listing, only to find out it actually doesn’t have a separate bedroom at all.
Another way for them to skirt reality is to include multiple apartment sizes within a building, on the same Craigslist ad, but only show the pricing of the least expensive size. For example, an ad for a $1900 1BR in the Financial District might then show generic photos of a luxury building and say “offering studios, one-bedrooms, and two-bedrooms.” When you call about the $1900 1BR listing you saw, they’ll say, “Oh, $1900 is for the studio.”
Here are two simple ways to avoid dealing with this bullsh*t:
- If a price seems too good to be true, it probably is. If every 1BR that you’ve seen listed for the Financial District is at least $2500, then a $1900 listing for the same size unit in the same area is probably not legit.
- If you see a real estate company with oodles of listings that look virtually identical (all in the exact same format and showing the exact same photos), but vary in price and wording, be skeptical.
Total fakeness #2: The Imaginary Apartment (aka the send-me-money scam)
I once watched an episode of the A&E show Intervention, wherein a man’s addiction to prescription drugs led him to make horrible choices (as with all the folks on that show). This including making the choice to send money to scam artists. He was addicted to sending money to lunatics in other countries who told him he’d won something. Until I saw that episode, I had no idea that anyone fell for “send-me-money scams.”
But people do fall for money scams. That’s why the scams still exist. And Craigslist is a great place for scammers to prey on the naïve. It’s a smart ploy, too. First time apartment hunters, and people hunting for apartments in new cities, are often stressed out by the process and under-informed.
Do yourself a favor here:
- If you don’t know much about the city you’re moving into, use a realtor. Try to find an agent who comes recommended by a friend or colleague. If you don’t know anyone in the area, talk to multiple realtors to get a feel for how far your money will go in a given neighborhood. This is what realtors are there for. It is worth the money to avoid getting ripped off.
- If you live in the city and you’re just looking for a new apartment, nothing should be taken care of over the phone. Go see all apartments in person. Get a business card from the showing agent and look for their website online to confirm that they’re legit. Do not send any money to anyone. A lease signing should be done with the building management company or landlord, and the agent showing you the apartment should be involved in the process. Checks should be handed over in person.
There are a few things to look for when scanning Craigslist for your new apartment. Here are some warning signs that can serve as quick red flags to potential listing problems:
- No phone number. Listing agents want to get their apartments rented, so they definitely want you to call them. 99 times out of 100, they’ll list their cell phone number. If you don’t see a phone number, this might mean something fishy is going on.
- @aol.com email addresses. If the anonymous Craigslist email address is replaced with a generic personal email address, you may be staring at a scam listing. Realtors will often include their work email in their listings, which will be easily recognizable, but if the sole contact email is a generic address, check the listing a bit more closely to see if everything else seems legitimate.
- The cheapest price around. If you’re looking for a 1BR apartment in Soho and everything you’ve seen has cost $2800/month, a random listing for $1500 is probably not real.
More to come on Craigslist. I’ll tell you about how realtors actually use the site and give you some info on wording, photos, and neighborhood names. But for now, at least you can keep from falling victim to people who can only waste your time. Apartment hunting on your own can feel like a full-time job, especially if you’re working with a deadline. Taking heed to the points I listed here can filter out bad listings fast.
Anyone ever fallen victim to a Craigslist scam? Anyone stealthily avoided scams? If it was up to me, you’d be able to “cross listings off” of your search results, if you didn’t like them or if they seemed fake. That way you could narrow down your search on the spot and not spend time scrolling through junk. Craigslist creators, are you reading this? Help a girl out!