In early 2022, I had just moved back to the Bay Area and was searching for housing. Ideally, I wanted to live alone in Oakland on my own without roommates since I was done with the roommate life. The housing market for solo single renters at an affordable rate is not the best in general, but I did not realize how hard it was to find a spot for 1 person in a one bedroom or studio with a flexible lease.
That is why then, when I encountered a Craigslist listing a studio in a bustling neighborhood of Oakland for an okay rental price of $1650 a month (typical for Bay Area rent) with a flexible lease, I thought this was too good to be true and reached out. Not long after I reached out, a person with the name of “Robert” emailed back and thanked me for my interest and basically described his situation as to why he couldn’t show the place.
The Scam Interaction
In the first email, Robert wrote that the unit is available and that the reason he was subletting his place was that he was transferred to Hawaii for a temporary position for a period of 18 months. He was looking for someone to sublet between the span of 1-20 months. Then he explained that the landlord was a cancer patient living in a nursing home hence no one could show the apartment.
He suggested I drive by around the apartment to check out the building and the neighborhood. A rental application was required then after approval, one would need to send the rent (which included all utilities) and a refundable damage deposit directly to the landlord’s bank account. After the money is received then they would mail the keys over via FedEx. Robert had attached images of the apartment in the email and inquired if I was “interested in subletting” and if I was that he would speak with the landlord for the rental application form.
Since I was so desperate for housing and my time was running out to find a place, I had completely missed the red flag cues that this was a scam. For context, I think it’s because I’ve found all my previous housing through Craigslist and they had all worked out (and were real) and I also see a lot of Craigslist housing posts go through my email inbox everyday sent by real people in a local group I’m subscribed to. I had this automatic thought that in the Bay Area, particularly San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, people are trustworthy online.
I wrote back an email explaining that I am a reliable tenant with some examples of my past living experiences. I mentioned that I could fill out the rental application later but had asked for a phone call to chat since it would be much faster. In my head, I had assumed since he had replied via email so fast, that a phone call would be the easiest and fastest method to discuss this.
Robert wrote back shortly ignoring my request for a call and urged me to fill out the rental application form and to “promise two things” which were 1) “take very good care of the unit” and 2) “not delay in paying rent”. It was only after this response did I start to properly question the legitimacy of the listing.
The Red Flags
The part that made me question the listing and realize this was likely a scam was the fact that “Robert” ignored my request to have a phone call and urged me to fill out the rental application ASAP. It was all happening too fast and the fact that his responses lacked empathy and personableness and went straight to “business” in a way that did not follow the conversation flow well, proved to me that this was someone who was out to just get my money.
The obvious red flags though, that I had missed earlier due to desperation clouding my judgment, include the fact that there was no way to view the apartment in person, and if not in person, no way to view it via a video call and the request to a phone call kept getting ignored.
Now, the convincing parts of this listing and interaction was that first, he spelled my name correctly (this was big for me because I’ve had real listing responses spell my name wrong), the rental application form and the request for some personal information that is typical of a housing application process. Also, the fact that it wasn’t a bot responding but a real person responding made me think this was legit.
The more subtle red flag though is the backstory to why no one could show the unit. They came up with a seemingly plausible storyline to explain why the tenant and the landlord would both be unavailable. In reality though, it’s not plausible. First of all, someone would not just be transferred to another state for work so suddenly they did not have time to find a subletter or move out their items. And even if someone did have to move so urgently, they can easily fly back to get these logistics figured out. Especially if it’s an apartment containing your valuables!
The leasing span of 1-20 months was also unrealistic, because going through the trouble of having someone lease from you for just 1 month is a lot of work. Not realistic. And then the backstory (sob story) of the landlord having cancer and staying in a nursing home… I think the goal of a story like that is so the person who is applying for the apartment does not ask any questions because why would you when someone is going through such a hard time?
After realizing it was a scam
I had done some more detective work to confirm it was a scam. One was to actually go in person to check out the apartment unit since I wasn’t staying very far. Obviously, I could not tell much by checking out the outside of the unit, besides the fact that it is a real unit. The other step I took was looking up the listing on Google and found a link to the apartment in apartments.com and saw the exact same words and images being used. I assumed that listing was actually legitimate because apartments on the website need real estate agents.
I reached out to the agent on apartments.com to ask if the story I was told was accurate and if it was a scam, and if so, if they were aware of this scam. They did not get back to me until the day after but they did confirm that the story was false and the listing I saw must have been a scam. They also mentioned getting other messages from folks who came across the Craigslist scam. Getting the agent’s confirmation was sufficient for me to go back to Craigslist and report the listing as a scam, then emailing “Robert” back with a quick message saying “shame on you! Can’t believe you pulled the cancer card”. Of course, I never heard back after sending that message.
Lessons Learned for the Future
I’ve learned my lesson to not let the fact that an email is written NOT by a robot be the reason I’m convinced it is not a scam. As we live in a world centered and driven by technology with increasing ability to fake everything from messages to voices and even faces, one can’t trust what is on the internet easily anymore.
I think the easiest way to check if a housing listing specifically is a scam is to request a phone call/video call/in person viewing. The goal is to get across to a real person and actually get to view the space one would be living in. As well as asking them to prove their identity just as much as they may ask you to prove yours. At the end of the day, these transactions are a two-way street and both sides are entitled to information about the other party.
All in all though, just be very careful with disclosing your personal and financial information. By default, do not give the information out and especially do not send money without knowing with certainty that the interaction you’re going through is not a scam. Scammers these days are advanced in playing mind tricks and social engineering to get people to fall for their tactics, so one must stay alert, especially when perusing the online space!