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I've been hunting around for an apartment recently, and along with the countless posts on Craigslist, I found one with a good price but slightly strange story. The poster claims to have been sent to another office out of state by his company for a few months with no intention of subleasing his apartment, but now he'd like to. He's sent me pictures of the apartment, and a lease agreement, and we've exchanged some information besides, but I'm not entirely sure this place is real.

I live in a very, very competitive housing market, so if this place is as it's supposed to be, I should be very fast about pursuing it, but I am slightly worried it might be a Nigerian prince-esque scam.

He's requested the rent be paid by bank transfer to a Chase Bank account, how can I make a bank transfer for my deposit in a way that is recoverable in case this turns out to be a scam?

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    Have you followed CL's rules for renting apartments? craigslist.org/about/scams Do not rent or purchase sight-unseen – RonJohn Jul 18 at 14:34
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    Have you performed a Google Image search or TinEye on these pictures? Have you performed a Google Street Search to see whether the windows match the windows in the picture? – Quora Feans Jul 18 at 17:10
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    @QuoraFeans I have, and none of the images were found online. The street search is clever, but unfortunately moot as it's an apartment without clear line of sight from the street – TheEnvironmentalist Jul 18 at 17:29
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    @TheEnvironmentalist If this is legitimate surely this person must have friends or colleague in your city who can show you the apartment? – JB Chouinard Jul 18 at 18:09
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    Please don't answer in comments – Ganesh Sittampalam Jul 19 at 16:47
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The two basic rules for not getting scammed while apartment hunting are:

  • Never sign the contract before you inspected the property in person
  • Never pay money to inspect a property in person

Carefully chosen pictures can hide a lot of nasty details. Pictures also don't communicate sound or smell. So insist on a tour of the apartment before signing the lease agreement. That's not just to protect you from a malicious scam but also to protect yourself from a good-faith offer which is just a bad fit for you.

A common scam in this regard is one where the fake landlord asks you for money in order to be allowed to inspect the non-existent property. One way this is often framed is that they want to send you the key by mail and demand a money deposit from you as a security to ensure you send it back. Another is that they want you to pay a person who shows you the apartment on behalf of the landlord. The fake landlord then takes that money, moves it somewhere where you can't get it back, and then you never hear from them again. If someone wants money from you to even see the apartment, something is wrong.

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    Great answer, but in last sentence, not something is wrong, everything is wrong. – Danubian Sailor Jul 18 at 21:33
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    Unfortunately, even seeing the apartment is no guarantee. In the news here in Germany recently was a woman who was subletting an apartment (or maybe Nachmieten which is a bit different), pretended to be a letting agent, showed people around the property, created real-looking contracts, took people's money, and on the day of the supposed key transfer a dozen people showed up and she is since uncontactable. Not 100% sure how one would defend against such a scam. – gerrit Jul 18 at 22:07
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    @gerrit I'd call that outright fraud rather than scam (admitting that scam is indeed attempted fraud). There're a couple of things that come to my mind on how to protect yourself from that: 1. Never ever pay cash! There's absolutely no reason to pay your rent in cash unless there's something illegal going on. 2. Demand to see some kind of identification and be prepared for the other side to want yours. You're not buying a pack of cigarettes - you're signing a contract worth thousands over months! Unless it's obvious - such as visiting a car dealer - you should know who the other one is! – Thomas Jul 19 at 6:26
  • @gerrit There have been cases of Airbnb renters/scammers showing prospective tenants the place and collecting a deposit, and of course when they show up with all of their belongings in a moving truck on the agreed-upon date they find they've been scammed. – Spehro Pefhany Jul 19 at 13:04
  • Very good point: "also [protects you] from a good-faith offer which is just a bad fit for you" – J. Chris Compton Jul 19 at 13:04
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No one appears to answering the stated question, so:

How do you send money when you're not sure it's not a scam?

Don't

If you aren't 100% sure it isn't a scam, don't send money. If it isn't a scam, any renter or seller will acquiesce to any reasonable requests you have to make sure it's not a scam before sending money. Obviously scammers won't.

Once you transfer money (especially a bank transfer, where the money is immediately taken out of your account) you have no control over it and very little opportunity to get it back. Even if you go to your bank and accuse this person of fraud all the bank can do is reverse the transfer, which won't do anything since any half-way competent scammer will have moved your money out of their account as soon as they got it.

So again, don't send money unless you are sure.

  • It's good advice, but I'm not sure that "don't send money unless you're 100% sure it's not a scam" actually answers "how do you send money when you're sure it's not a scam" either... – A C Jul 21 at 2:33
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    @AC Good thing that wasn't the question then, eh? – GreySage Jul 22 at 13:48
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Unfortunately we live in an age where a large amount of apartments and houses are being rented on sites like airbnb as well, not even inspecting the apartment is foolproof.

Be wary of increasingly common scams of people renting a house/apartment on airbnb for a week and running with the money.

The safest bet is probably to get a real estate agent from a renowned agency to provide his knowledge (they can sniff out something fishy) and perhaps even service as a middle man of sorts for the payment.

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    I hadn't heard of this scam before, but it makes way too much sense. :( – Bobson Jul 18 at 17:45
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    @Bobson when I was apartment hunting, there were more scams that you could shake a stick at, and they all said, they'd been "sent to another office out of state by his company for a few months". All of them. They even used the same form letters!!! – RonJohn Jul 18 at 17:50
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    @RonJohn - That I've heard of. It's looping in airbnb to actually be able to show up in person and "show" the place that boggles me. – Bobson Jul 18 at 17:52
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    @WGroleau that's not the scam that's mentioned here. What's suggested here is that AirBNB is used to let an appartment, so that the scammer has an actual appartment to show to the victim. – JAD Jul 19 at 6:56
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    @WGroleau he's saying the scammer pays Air BnB for a day to show the apartment to victims. Victim pays scammer for 1 month of rent. Scammer pays Air BnB for 1 day. The difference is pure profit. – Kora Jul 19 at 17:13
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There are a few tips I've discovered during years of hunting for different apartments to weed out suspicious listings. Your situation does seem reminiscent of a time I was nearly scammed on a rental property where the listing was a guy who had moved(from Michigan) to New York for a job and still owned his house in Michigan. We really liked the pictures of the property, but were unable to actual tour the home because the "owner" was in New York. He would send the keys by mail if we agreed to rent. Long story short, we came across a new opportunity and moved to North Carolina instead. However, I've learned a few things since that time that may be useful.


First, make sure to Google the address of the rental property and carefully scan the results. Typically when a person is scamming rental properties, the home is up for rent on some other site or the pictures are readily available on a site like Zillow or any of the other many rental listing websites. If you see it on another site with a different price or different details, there's a good chance you're being scammed.

The thing to look at with the pictures is to first confirm the interior pictures match with the Zillow listing. Additionally, it's wise to compare the pictures the potential renter sent you against these pictures online. Are there any pictures sent to you that are not on the listing on Zillow? Are there any that don't seem to match or correspond to what you see on Zillow?

A site like Zillow can be VERY useful in your search. Not only does it list tons of information about the properties you're looking at, but it also shows other legitimate listings to compare against and choose from. With the other properties in the same neighborhood, you can compare the price and see if the property is worth renting simply by using it's comparative value. If you're looking at the cheapest option in the neighborhood, there's a good chance there's some issue not being shown. If it's about average, you're probably okay.

You can look at sales data to see when the property was last sold and usually get an idea of who it was sold to. While not always the most useful, you can see if it sold to a property management company or a private buyer and you can see the appraised value at the time of sale. This can tell you whether the property is worth the monthly cost and if the property has been updated(value has gone up). Additionally, if you're seeing the property sold fairly regularly, there's a good chance it is a rental.

On top of all this, it may be wise to carefully scan the lease agreement and compare to other lease agreements you've signed. Compare to your current lease and make sure that it looks legitimate. Scammers will tend to make mistakes and it can become very clear that the agreement was written by someone who doesn't really know what they're doing. This can be helpful combined with other details, but is not always indicative of a scam. If it really is just a guy subleasing his apartment, he could've written it himself.

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    If the images match on Zillow then the scammer probably lifted them from Zillow; a common scam mentioned in another answer is to advertise a property that really is for rent/sale but where the scammer has no relationship to the actual person renting/selling the property. – Bryan Krause Jul 18 at 21:10
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There's no safe way of sending money to a scam-artist. Once it's on their hands, you'll have a hard time to identify his identity or to request the money back. Only decent people would worry about sending money back, obviously.

This totally appears to be a scam for several reasons already mentioned.

If you are still not convinced and fear to let a bargain pass, try to test this person:

  • Tell him that you have a friend in his city, and ask whether both could meet
  • ask him to send his keys to a friend/college near the apartment
  • ask him for his current address/company or any other identifying information

Scam artists normally are allergic to face to face encounters, and even telephone calls might put them off. Some would go through with their scheme even then though. However, they would do anything possible to avoid that you get personal reliable information that can identify them, and they would not invest time on someone who appears to suspect the whole thing.

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PayPal, as a purchase. Ask him to invoice you for a purchase. You won’t hear from him again :)


What's really happening here

This is the backside of another scam they are working concurrently. That Chase account you're wiring to actually belongs to Susan Danvers, who lives in rural Pennsylvania and is thrilled to have a "virtual" office assistant job for a Canadian steel mill. She was hired entirely online/via messaging, or by a gentleman with a thick accent.

When you agree to send the money, Susan will be told that this is her first week's salary + petty cash for some tasks that need doing. She'll be told to buy some Visa gift cards, scratch off the numbers, and give them to her boss so he can buy some equipment from a US supplier. (spoiler alert: this is all bull).

Susan will go "OK, no problem there since the money is in my account." The scammer now has the Visa gift cards and codes.

Later, you discover the apartment is a scam, and go to your bank to attempt to clawback the payment. One of two things happens.

  • Chase says "nope" in which case you are left holding the bag.
  • Or Chase says "sure, we can reverse that, since we allow Susan to overdraw up to $800" in which case she now has an overdrawn account she must cover right away... Meaning she's left holding the bag.

The scammer has won triple: he has brought significant life stress onto two Americans, and can now either buy his life's pleasures. Or as is often the case, bullets and bombs; those scammers don't target us by accident; we're their enemy.

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    Do you have any evidence for your last sentence? – Carsten S Jul 20 at 8:08
  • @CarstenS consumer fraud is not new for them, but I'll add some cites in the article. You don't know this? – Harper Jul 20 at 15:31
  • They may also be sending victims to particular shops to "wire the money", in which case the shopkeeper recognizes the wire destination as his own scam, and just pockets it. – Harper Jul 20 at 15:41
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    I disagree with the last phrase. I don't think they consider Americans their enemy. They would happily scam you no matter your nationality. – Ángel Jul 20 at 21:34
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    @Ángel The position of the sentence right after the reference to some scammers using scams to fund terror, as well as the word "some", means that last sentence only applies to those. Not all scammers are terrorists, but terrorists do raise funds that way among others, as shown in my 10 links. – Harper Jul 20 at 21:55
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If there were such 100% reversible payment methods, there would be scams in the opposite direction, where a tenant rents an apartment, stays there for a month, them disappears and reverses their payment.

Also, if the price is such that you feel you "should be very fast about pursuing it", it's another reason to be rather slow and cautious about it. The reason scammers make their offers "too good to be true" is to create the sense of urgency, otherwise they could scam you for the market price.

It's better to miss on an outstanding offer than to get scammed.

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I would find a trustworthy escrow service and ask the other party to agree to using it. You'll pay a fee for the escrow service, but it's worth it. The seller/renter will know your money is there, and you'll get the peace of mind that comes with knowing if it's a scam you get your money back (less the escrow fee of course).

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    INdeed escrow is the way forward: Keeping back a key at the end of my lease, and knowing a professional could has moved in & is out for work 08--18h, I can show it to a dozen people and accept a dozen deposits and hand out a dozen copies then disappear... and in this case, he doesn't even have to show the possibly-existing appartment! – user3445853 Jul 31 at 20:12
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Visit his in-state office and confirm the story with them. Including contacting him via their communications channels so that you know that you are talking to the same guy they are talking about.

If it all still looks legit, leave his first payment with them and get a receipt for it.

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