Anatomy of a Scam Apartment Listing

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Today we're going to look at five screenshots of apartment ads that I found on Craigslist. I am 99% certain that all five of them are scams. I found all five within about 10 minutes by searching for rentals under $800 in the city of Chicago. For each one I will point out why I think it's a scam so that you can have a list of red flags to keep in your mind for future reference.

I flagged all five of these as scams and most have been removed already. If you ever find a scam ad on Craigslist you should also consider flagging it by checking the "Prohibited" box at the top so that others don't wind up wasting money or time.

Scammers tend to be located overseas. They will post ads for apartments our houses that they do not own, or in some cases will rent out properties that do not actually exist. If you contact them, they will usually provide some sort of excuse for why they cannot actually show the property. (In some cases they'll even break into an empty apartment so they have something to show you!) They will collect a security deposit, demand that the deposit be paid by money order, take your money and then vanish.

You can click on any of the screenshots included below to view them at a larger size.

Ad #1: $342 3 bedroom house. The "Too Good to be True" scam.

Scam Ad #1

Red flags:

  • Only one photo of an exterior, clearly from Google street view. Scammers will usually include at least one photo to make their ads appear more legitimate. However, these photos are often vague, stolen, or both, and there's rarely more than one included.
  • Map shows incorrect location. Mozart Street is east of Marquette Park, but the map shows an area west of the park. I went up and down Mozart Street in Google Streetview close to the specified area on the map. While the homes looked similar, I could not find any on the west side of this southbound one-way road with that combination of a white fence on the left and a peaked dormer and 2nd floor addition on the right. Satellite view of the area makes it clear how few of these 2nd floor additions can be found in the area close to 6300 S Mozart. There's only one, and based on the direction of the car in the ad photo, it's on the wrong side of the street.
  • The phone number uses wrong number grouping and incorrect English. Many scammers are overseas and don't know the correct US idioms. I suspect this phone number is for someone in a Spanish overseas territory, possibly the Canary Islands. Either that or they're in New York, which has a 347 area code.
  • Extremely low rent with a very specific number. Rents rates tend to be multiples of $25 for all but the most expensive luxury properties. That $342 was probably run through a foreign currency converter.
  • "No broker fee." Not a selling point in Chicago as we don't have broker fees. New York does, though, which combined with the phone number makes me think that this scam ad was originally targetting New York renters and duplicated to Chicago with a Chicago-ish non-descript bungalow photo for extra mileage.
  • Capitalizing every word. Legitimate brokers will often use odd capitalization, but it's usually all upper case letters when they do so.
  • Scammers tend to target people who are desperate for housing, usually after a long search or an eviction. "Bad credit OK" and the immediate availability are both targeting these disadvantaged renters.
  • Overall, this could possibly just be a landlord with very poor English. There's just enough that it might be legit, but too many errors for it to be real. This is a "too good to be true" listing, and undoubtedly a scam.

Ad #2: $430 2 bed/2 bath. The "Right Place, Wrong City" scam.

Scam #2

Red flags:

  • Another single photo, this time of a non-descript apartment interior. No view of the windows so you can't tell the location.
  • Text claims that the apartment has a view of the lake, but map shows a location in Chicago Ridge, 13 miles from the lake front.
  • Another very precise and low rent rate.
  • Mention of sites in another city. 100 Oaks, the gulch and Grand Avenue all refer to sites in Nashville. Scammers will copy text from other legit ads and paste them into their fake ones.
  • Mention of a virtual tour with no link.

Ad #3: $500 3bed/3bath. The "Tardis" scam.

Scam #3

Red flags:

  • Map shows Elk Grove village. Even if you don't Google the street names, the lack of a clear "grid" layout on the map clearly shows that this isn't a Chicago location.
  • No location-specific text.
  • Text cuts off in the middle of a sentence.
  • Yet another ad with a single picture of a non-descript house.
  • A quick browse of that area of Elk Grove Village in street view shows that every single family house in the area has a paved driveway.
  • Text mentions "Impact Windows" but photo clearly shows vintage windows.
  • Obvious 2nd floor vent indicates a whole-house exhaust fan. These are uncommon enough in Illinois that they would merit a mention in the ad copy. No fan mentioned in this one.
  • There is no way that a house of that size has 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms above ground. As we do not have access to Time Lord technology, that ad copy came from a different ad than the photo.
  • The price on this one is a nice round number, but it's way too low for a full house in the Chicago metro.

Ad #4: $800 3bed. The "Stolen from the Sale Listings" scam.

Scam #4

Red flags:

  • I have to confess that at the outset it was only the price that gave this one away. It has all the hallmarks of a legitimate ad, but there were just too many things that were slightly "off" for it to be anything but a scam.
  • It actually has a lot of photos, unlike the others we've looked at so far.
  • There is a very unique phrase in the title: "Charming American Foursquare." The exterior photo also shows the number of the address. I searched for that phrase with the number, 4845, and found that it was indeed copied from a new for-sale listing. The text was also copied, except for the single sentence at the end of the original which mentions a garage and carport.
  • Sometimes agents will post rental listings at the same time as sale listings. However, when they do so they must include their name and the name of their brokerage. This copy had neither of these legally-mandated elements. I suspect that the system these particular scammers are using to copy and paste ad text deliberately skips the last sentence of any original ad copy, as the real contact info is usually in that sentence. Professional photos without a brokerage name in an ad are usually stolen.
  • The filterable features on the right include "wheelchair accessible," but the exterior photo shows stairs. This means that like ad #1, they're targeting another group that has a hard time finding housing, disabled renters.
  • Map is close to the correct location, but too far south. Hutchinson is north of Irving Park.
  • Scammers love getting their content from the sale listings because Realtors so rarely check the rental listings that they're unlikely to find out about it. They tend to have a lot of nice photos and well-written copy. Once I had one of my own ads copied in this way I started using unique phrases so I could easily search for each one of my listings every day.

Ad #5: $750 3bed house. The "Fake Watermark" scam.

Scam #5

Red flags:

  • We've got 4 photos, 2 exterior and 2 interior. They even show snow and have a watermark. But the watermark is too vague: "2019 Listing Broker." No corporate info, no real name.
  • The ad copy says Germantown, but the map shows Greektown. Chicago doesn't actually have a Germantown. The closest we've got is Lincoln Square. However, it would be easy for a city newcomer to confuse the two names. Even so, I don't believe there are any single family shotgun-style "tiny homes" of this nature remaining in Greektown, which is now mostly high rises and warehouse lofts.
  • There's another mistaken attempt at American grammar in the price: $7,50.
  • The filterable features specify that it's a furnished house but interior photos do not show any furniture. They also mention an attached garage, which is totally unlikely looking at the photo, and also very uncommon in Chicago. Our garages are usually detached an alley-facing.
  • The cut off sentence "Owner is a licensed real estate agent in the state of ..." is super sketchy.
  • Like ads #1 and 4, this is preying on disadvantaged renters who are looking for an inexpensive rent-to-own option. There is no such thing.
  • Non-refundable deposits are illegal in Chicago. You can have a non-refundable fee or down payment or a refundable deposit.
  • Based on the width of the door compared to the width of the house, the house itself can't be more than 14 ft wide. This would mean that the lot itself is much smaller than the standard 25' x 125' Chicago lot.
  • Here in Chicago we tend to build out of brick, and we're quite late to hop on board the tiny house trend. The idea that we'd have 3 tiny houses in a row, each with white vinyl siding, is practically unheard of for this area.
  • Sure enough, I did a Google search for "complete remodel in Germantown" and found the original listing, which was located at 1004 E St. Catherine St., Germantown, Kentucky.

Now it's your turn. Head over to Craigslist Chicago and search for apartments in the city of Chicago under $800. Use the red flags I've given here and see if you spot any scam ads. It doesn't have to be under $800. You can try to go higher if you like. But remember that scammers prey most of all on desperate people, and desperate people are usually not all that wealthy. The higher you go with your price cap, the less likely you are to find scam listings.

Let me know what you find, and make sure to share this article with folks you know who might be hunting for housing on the low end of the price spectrum this spring.

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Published by

Kay Cleaves