How to spot Craigslist apartment rental scams – Detroit Free Press

I’m not usually one to text with scammers but an apartment rental deal in Detroit’s Midtown had me intrigued.
Urban chic apparently has its own charming appeal for cyber crooks too. 
A Livonia man clued me into a Craigslist ad after an exchange he had during his search for an apartment that would be closer to his job in downtown Detroit. 
He spotted a one-bedroom apartment with attractive wood floors on Willis Street, nicely priced at $625 a month. The problem: The person he ended up texting with, clearly, was up to no good. 
The online photos make you want to look twice at this apartment, which isn’t far from the Lodge Freeway and Wayne State University. 
An eye-catching red-white-and-blue pillow perks up a modest light gray chair. A white French glass door opens from the living room area into the small kitchen. A big American flag decorates one wall that is smartly painted in a rich, deep gray.
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We’re talking about an adorable apartment that’s fully furnished, all utilities — gas, electricity and water — included in what some call the North Cass neighborhood. Pets are even allowed for an additional fee. 
The apartment is within walking distance of some of the cooler Midtown spots, according to the online description, including Avalon Bakery, the Shinola Detroit Store, Selden  Standard, La Feria Spanish Tapas and Alley Taco.
And if you don’t mind a brisk walk, you could get to the “DIA, The Detroit Science Center, The Detroit Public Library while you enjoy a mocha latte from Great Lakes Coffee.”
First question: How soon can I see this one?
First problem: You’re not getting any further than those pictures.
“What time will someone show us the studio?” I texted the person offering to sublet the apartment.
“Oh sorry! Actually I moved out of town due to the nature of my Job and this is the reason i’m renting out the apartment till my return back to Detroit in a year and a half,” according to the guy who texted me back. (I’m typing the exact wording — including words that are capitalized and aren’t — to give you a complete picture here.) 
“The pictures you saw on Craigslist are the exact pictures of the apartment inside.”
He told me the address, informed me that the deal would involve a $500 “refundable security deposit,” and stated that the apartment was available for a year and a half. If wanted, he said, I could “go ahead and view the apartment environment.” 
“Are others interested?” I asked.
“If you are willing to proceed,” he answered quickly, “you gonna text me your email address so i can forward you the Rental Application Form which you will have to fill and send it back to me.” 
I asked him the square footage of the apartment. He never answered that question. 
No one, of course, was handling this deal for him. No idea where this renter was working now. And he wasn’t working with an agent or property manager. You’d deal directly with this guy. 
“Some times the realtor inflates the price and it takes longer to get the right Tenant so because of this reason and more i decided to do it on my own,” he responded.
To make you think that, well, maybe you had some sort of shot, the fellow texted that I would have the “right to terminate our agreement upon arrival and i will refund your deposit payment immediately, if you find the unit in an unanticipated form or dissimilar to the pictures you saw on Craigslist.” 
OK, who talks like that? In Detroit? 
And how, really, would I even get a key? 
He had an answer for that one, too.
“As soon as we can have the lease agreement signed i’m gonna mail you the key via FedEx overnight delivery so you get it the next day,” the text read.
Now whether he’d FedEx me anything — or perhaps be so clever as to mail some key that didn’t work — I don’t know.
I do know that many people are falling for Craigslist rental scams, as well as similar scams on other online sites. Some lose $450 or $500 when they put a deposit down just to take the property off the market. 
Online rental scams exist, of course, because many apartment and home searches do begin by researching specialty websites. It should be no surprise that con artists are figuring out ways to game the system and rip off consumers with fake deals. 
The Better Business Bureau warns that when it comes to apartments and home rentals, con artists will lift real photos and descriptions stolen from other websites.
Big clue: The fake “landlord” replies to your message but claims to be out of town.
Students in college towns, for example, can get taken by paying money to people via credit or debit card to “hold the apartment” until the landlord is back in town and able to show the space.
Once they have the money, the scammers disappear.
“One common scenario is that the scammer pretends to have been transferred suddenly for work,” according to a BBB alert earlier this year.
Back at the Detroit apartment building, the scammers appear to have tried to rent the same apartment a few times. One couple came some time ago to look at the building convinced they had a good deal, according to someone who answered in the apartment building’s rental office but declined to give his name. 
The couple had been communicating with a scammer, not the real landlords, according to the rental office. “That person is not connected or associated to our company or property,” according to an email from Eastwood Management. 
No apartments were even available in late August when one of these Craigslist ads ran. The Livonia man, fortunately, gave up completely when he couldn’t even see a lease in advance. (Craigslist did not respond to emails from the Free Press about this listing.) 
Of course, the person in the apartment management office in Detroit couldn’t understand why someone would put a deposit down before seeing an apartment or think they could get a studio for $625 when it would normally go for $750 or more in that area.
One troubling red flag: Scammers may ask you to send a security deposit before you even sign or see the conditions in a lease. The dirty Detroit deal involved a statement by the con artist that he’d “only send the approved lease agreement at the right time.” 
In some cases, the BBB said, the scammer may claim that you can see the property through a rental agent — only after you pay the deposit.
Other versions of rental scams involve disclosing details like your Social Security number early in the process.
Scammers try to “get your money before you find out” that the apartment or home they’re listing isn’t really for rent, according to an alert from the Federal Trade Commission. 
In August, a woman in Skokie, Illinois, was charged with posing as a landlord to steal rent money and security deposits from apartment hunters, according to WBBM Newsradio.  
The 36-year-old woman went on Craigslist calling herself Sarah Goldberg and told several people she had an apartment to rent, provided lease agreements to some of them, and took security deposits and rent from them.
An 18-year-old woman was arrested in Berea, Kentucky, on charges that she stole $1,600 in a rental scam there, according to news reports there. 
“I think this is a rather common scam, unfortunately,” said Laura Blankenship, director of marketing for the Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan.
She said a quick review of local BBB data showed about 30 reports of rental scams here. 
She and her husband ran across an online scam, too, when looking for a home closer to Southfield.
“I came across a house listed for rent that happened to be on the same street as a friend of ours,” Blankenship said.
“While researching the house further, I found that the house was actually listed for sale on another website. That’s how they got photos of the house’s interior.”
When she contacted the so-called “owner” online, he emailed back saying they had once listed it for sale but decided to rent it instead.
He, of course, was no longer in Michigan. He was in Arizona and couldn’t show the house.
“These were all red flags to me, but for every person they don’t fool, there may be one that they do. It requires very little effort on their part,” Blankenship said.
Some screaming red flags: 
As part of my so-called apartment search, I did drive down to the apartment building on Willis Street. The building itself does exist — and there are people living in it. 
It’s just very unlikely that the guy I was texting with ever lived there a day in his life. 
My contact for this mysterious studio apartment — and the same contact for the Livonia man — called himself Arnold Almelor. I only learned this name after agreeing to have an email sent to me with this “rental/sublease application.” (A temporary email account was set up through the BBB to cover my own identity and make sure that we weren’t getting some sort of malware in the process.) 
Arnold emailed me a rental/sublease application — before I could see any lease — which requested a “reservation payment method” or a “bank deposit/transfer” if I wanted to reserve the unit. 
Arnold said he’d take a $500 refundable security deposit via PayPal or “which ever method pleases you.”
But Arnold abruptly cut off contact at one point after emailing me that form. Maybe I crossed the line and turned too personal when I asked: “What do you do? Did you like living there?”
“Living here …?” was the response.
“In the apartment?” I responded. “Did you like living there?”  
“Yes, but i am out of town due to the nature of my Job! I told you,” he said in a snarky text. No chitchatting about Midtown’s tacos or tapas. 
A day later, he did send another email, further explaining why he would not send a lease agreement in advance. A few minutes later, he texted: “How are you doing baby?” 
Just fine, I thought. Yep, and I’m telling you, Arnold, we’re not falling one bit for this dopey deal. 
ContactSusan Tompor at313-222-8876 or Follow her on Twitter@tompor. Read more on business and sign up for our business newsletter.


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