Renters beware

If you are looking for a home to rent in San Diego County, good luck!  3 bedroom, 2 bath rental homes are in high demand and you can expect to pay $2500 - $2700 in a nicer neighborhood.  And many property management companies are looking for tenants with a minimum credit score of 650, which can be difficult for many folks.  With multiple applicants for each property and application fees of $30 - $40 per person, searching for a home can be a frustrating and expensive proposition.


So imagine the excitement when friends of mine who are searching for a rental home found what seemed to be the perfect home on Craigslist.  A lovely home in an older, but highly desirable area with a lap pool, 2800 sq ft, and a huge bonus room for entertaining.  The pictures looked fabulous and it was being offered for just $1700 a month!  They hurriedly replied to the ad and requested a time to view the home.


They received the following reply:


“The house is owned by me and my husband. We are a little selective in leasing out the House. Our priority is taking a responsible, careful, understanding and reasonable tenant that will take good care of the place. The above virtues are very important as we intend to leave you in full charge of the house while we are away. My husband and I just relocated to Africa recently due to business. We wanted to sell before since we will be away for a long time so we thought of renting it out since selling is taking longer than expected. So you can rent the place as long as it works with us. We intend renting from here as we would send the keys to you so you can take possession.12 month lease with full month's rent and a security deposit. Pets are considered w/additional deposit of $300. Note that only a serious and responsible applicant will be considered. It is therefore yours to prove to us that you are the perfect tenant for us. You can drive by the location and be rest assured before getting back to me as the house is absolutely clean. There's a $1000 security deposit plus a $1700 months rent due at signing of lease. Please get back to me so I can email you the rental application form and then we can proceed further. Please get back.”


The email response was signed by Eileen Simpson and included a Word Doc rental application as an attachment.  The application did not require a fee and there was no mention of a credit check…


Luckily, my friend called me as it all seemed just a bit off….and it is indeed!  I looked up the property on the MLS and it is a vacant active listing, with a list price of $749,000 - $799,000 – certainly not a home that would rent for $1700!   I then looked up on the tax records and the home is indeed owned by someone with the last name of Simpson.


I called the listing agent who immediately clarified that the owners had no intention of leasing the home and they certainly weren’t in Africa!  It was of course a total scam and I was the third person to call her with questions.  This has happened to her on several occasions over the past two years and she elaborated on how the scam works: Scammers identify a nice home that is vacant and for sale in a desirable area.  They download pictures and information from any real estate website and they might even check tax records to find out the name of the owner.  Next step is to put up an ad on Craigslist and advertise it for lease at a lower than market price in order to get a large number of people responding.  They of course can’t show the house because “the owners” are out of the country or state, but encourage people to drive by or look in the windows.  A bogus application is sent to everyone who responds and they are asked to submit the application along with the deposit and first month’s rent.  Upon receipt of the money, the “owners” will make arrangements to get the new tenants the keys. 


The scammers of course hope to get more than one applicant to fall for their ploy, but they move on quickly.  The ad is only posted for Craigslist for a short time to avoid arousing too much suspicion, and then it’s time to identify another home.  A variation on this scam that is even more convincing is when the scammer has access to the home, usually through a combo lock box, and can actually show the home acting as a property manager.


Renters beware!  A legitimate property manager or landlord will not expect you to pay money without seeing the property and they will charge an application fee and want to run your credit.  Another clue, as in this case, is the poorly written, contrived story.


So as my friend discovered, the old adage is correct:  If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.