But experts warn that convenience can sometimes come at an unexpectedly high price, particularly for those who turn to free classified sites like Craigslist for real estate-related transactions. Despite the media spotlight on the dangers of Craigslist in recent years, it appears that online rental scammers are still out in full force, preying on unsuspecting renters and landlords alike.
Just this January, a couple from Lynchburg, Va., were scammed out of $1,000 and confronted by the police because of a fake rental listing they'd responded to on Craigslist.
Richard and Faith Shive (pictured left) thought they'd found a beautiful vacant home and planned to rent it from the listing's author. The landlord claimed in the ad that he was away on a humanitarian "mission," and needed to rent the property in the interim. Convinced the story was true, the Shives wired a requested $1,000 fee to the renter, received the keys, and then moved into the empty house.
Two days later, police officers showed up at the Shives' "new home," demanding that they leave. It turns out that, while the home was legitimately listed for rent on the market, the unscrupulous party that advertised the rental on Craigslist was not the rightful landlord. The police informed the couple that the scammer had broken into the home and posed as the rightful owner only to make off with their deposit.
"They just made it sound believable," Faith told CBN News. "I didn't suspect anything."
And it's not just renters getting swindled -- landlords appear at risk, too. In another recent incident, Georgia resident Robert Fulton claimed that he got scammed out of $2,200 by a pair of prospective renters after he'd posted an ad on Craigslist to lease out his empty basement.
The pair reportedly sent him a $3,500 check as an advance on the rent, then asked him for a favor. Fulton claims that they requested he send the $2,200 they had "overpaid" him to an acquaintance of theirs to help "cover moving expenses." Though Fulton says that he had his suspicions, he went through with the transaction as the first check appeared to have cleared.
"A couple weeks later I got an email from the bank saying the check was no good," Fulton told WSB-TV. He told the television station that after he'd called the scammers about their ploy, they propositioned him to join them in making counterfeit checks, just like the one they'd allegedly used to rip him off in the first place.
"They said, 'Why don't you get involved with us and you can make some money? You can make all your money back,' " Fulton said.
But experts are skeptical that such duped consumers will ever see that money again.
An Online Money Trap
"Unfortunately, it's not likely Fulton will get his $2,200 back," Janet Hart from the Better Business Bureau told AOL Real Estate. "It's probably in another country and he doesn't even know about it. Wire transfers are irretrievable."
Hart, an expert on consumer fraud, reveals that sadly, Craigslist real estate scams are still happening very frequently. Cashing in on fake advance rent checks, like in Fulton's case, is one of the "most popular" Craigslist scams, she says, along with selling and renting "fake" homes. (That's advertising unlisted homes for bargain prices to out-of-town buyers who cannot physically check on the home, and then asking for a "holding fee" to be wire-transferred to an account, like in the Shives' case.)
How to Protect Yourself
Hart warns consumers that diligence is key. You can help safeguard yourself from these scams by avoiding any wire transfers, unless it is to or from a large and reputable organization. Also, if someone's offering you a lot more money than you're asking for in a simple real estate transaction, just don't take it.
"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Hart advises.
AOL Daily Finance also advises that if you are renting a place online and cannot physically see the place for any reason, at the very least you should Google the home's address and do some online research on the property before forking over any money. If the home shows up as a "for sale" home, there could be a problem.
"You can never be too careful," Hart adds. "Ask around and do your research before any online transaction, especially with things involving a lot of money like houses and cars."
For more tips on how to avoid a Craigslist real estate scam, make sure to read our guide.
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