AT A GLANCE
- Craigslist scam has been targeting single-family homes, apartment complexes and beachfront vacation spots.
- The ads offered rents starting at $875, at least $100 less than the true rates.
- Craigslist says “Do not rent or purchase sight-unseen — that amazing ‘deal’ may not exist.”
When Chris Kernan listed a Sarasota house for sale earlier this year, he wound up battling an online rental scam.
Someone claiming to be the homeowner swiped Kernan’s photos and information from a real estate web site, posted them on Craigslist and began taking email offers to rent the house.
“I had at least a dozen people call to show them the house as a rental,” said Kernan, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker. “The rent was $800 a month, which is just crazy to what the market was.”
He notified Craigslist of the scam, and the post was soon removed from the popular classified advertisement website.
“I thought that was the end of it, but 24 hours later the guy had a new ad up and the calls started coming again,” he said.
Versions of the Craigslist scam have been running on and off in Southwest Florida for some time, targeting single-family homes, apartment complexes and beachfront vacation spots.
Craigslist can be a legitimate venue to bring together buyers, sellers and renters. But some con artists are posting sweet-sounding deals that ask for deposits or even personal information like credit history and Social Security numbers, which can be used for identify theft.
Shannon Wilson, community manager at the 192-unit Beneva Place Apartments in Sarasota, said she began dealing with a rash of phony Craigslist ads from May until last month.
“We were encountering it on an almost daily basis, but it has quieted down lately,” she said.
Some of the false ads provided a link for potential tenants to click on and fill out an application that asked for key information like birth dates and Social Security numbers.
“They were stealing identities,” she said. “The consumers don’t know if that is ours or not.”
The ads, which featured photos of a different apartment complex, offered rents starting at $875, at least $100 less than the true rates.
Wilson filed reports with Craigslist, local law enforcement and the Federal Trade Commission, but remains frustrated that none took action to stop the scams other than Craigslist removing the ads.
Craigslist, which says users post more than 80 million classified ads each month, warns consumers specifically about real estate transactions.
“Do not rent or purchase sight-unseen — that amazing ‘deal’ may not exist,” says a website posting. The site also cautions against extending payment to anyone you have not met in person.
The Federal Trade Commission also warns about rental listings scams.
“Some scammers hijack a real rental or real estate listing by changing the email address or other contact information, and placing the modified ad on another site,” the FTC said. “Other rip-off artists make up listings for places that aren’t for rent or don’t exist, and try to lure you in with the promise of low rent or great amenities.”
Julie Chambers, owner of Island Dreams Vacation Rentals on Lido Key, received a phone call last month from a prospective renter who saw a Craigslist ad for a peak-season offer that was $1,350 less than her regularly monthly rates.
“They cut-and-pasted all of my pictures and my exact description of the property from a legitimate website,” Chambers said. “It’s amazing what people will do.”
Chambers posted a “scam alert” on Craigslist, and the ad was later removed. She doesn’t believe anyone lost money because of the attempt.
– By John Hielscher