in which i discover yet another internet scam

Looking for rental houses on Craigslist, I've discovered a scam that I was previously unaware of.

I replied to an ad for a place that sounded wonderful, with unusually low rent. I was keeping in mind the old maxim "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," but at the same time, it's only an email. It can't hurt to ask.

Everything I wanted to know about the property was answered in the affirmative. Then the supposed owner told me that I should fill out a rental application and, if approved, I could see the place.

Hmm. It's been six years since we looked for a place to live, but I'm pretty sure you don't fill out an application before you even see a property, unless you're working with a real estate agent. That would be a colossal waste of time. And why would I send personal information to a person I haven't even met, for a house I might not even want?

I tried to arrange a time to see the house, saying I would bring the completed application with me, and if we liked the house, submit the application on the spot.

Supposed Owner said he would not meet me at the house. He would give me the address and send keys "by secure courier". OK. That is weird.

At the same time, I heard back from another ad I replied to, also with an extremely low rent. This Supposed Owner had to leave the country suddenly for missionary work! They would give me an address where I could see the exterior of the house, and would mail me the keys.

Next stop: Google. "Rental scams." Dozens of sites describe this very common scam, but the SCAMwatch website, run by the Government of Australia, is particularly concise.
Fake rental properties and shared accommodation listings

Prospective tenants are being ripped off by fake rental property and shared accommodation listings on the internet posted by scammers.

SCAMwatch is warning prospective tenants to be wary when responding to rental properties advertised on the net where the 'owner' makes various excuses as to why you can't inspect the property but insists on an upfront payment for rent or deposit.

Scammers will often use various shared accommodation sites to post these fake listings. They will go to great lengths to ensure that the offer looks genuine by including photos and real addresses of properties. However, photos and details of properties can be easily obtained on the internet.

Once hooked, the scammer will request money, often via money transfer, or personal details upfront to 'secure' the rental property. SCAMwatch warns consumers not to send money or provide personal details to people you don't know and trust.

Warning signs - what to watch out for:

- Too good to be true offers.

- Ongoing excuses as to why the property cannot be viewed, such as the owner is overseas.

- Securing the property requires an up front fee via money transfer.

- The prospective landlord lives overseas.

How to protect yourself

- Insist on inspecting the property - a drive-by is not enough. With these types of scams, the property may genuinely exist, but it is owned by someone else.

- If it is overseas, ask someone you can trust to make inquiries. If there is a real estate agent or similar in the area they may be able to assist.

- Do not rely on any information provided to you from anyone recommended by the person advertising the property.

- An internet search on the name of the person offering the property and their email address may provide useful information.

- Where possible, avoid paying via money transfer. It is rare to recover money sent this way.
Today in the Craigslist housing listings, I noticed two ads, both identical to ads I saw yesterday - same photo, same text - but with the rent 30% lower. The poster hadn't even bothered to change conflicting information: the text said "no smoking no pets," but the Craigslist template was set to "cats OK dogs OK". (Example: original ad, scam ad.)

Like many people, when I heard about these scams in the past, I used to blame the victim. How could anyone fall for this? Now I take a more generous view. People can't know what they haven't been taught. Need or desire can blind us, and affordable housing is rarer than an honest real estate agent.

It's not just fresh-off-the-boat rubes and hayseeds that get taken. This New York Times article describes "a woman in her 20s who works in finance at a major investment bank" who came close to falling for a scam. Several people described in that article thought they were savvy, but ended up forking over money to con men.

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