San Francisco Craigslist apartment scams are getting weirder – SFGATE

If you’re looking for an uncommon San Francisco apartment deal on Craigslist, expect to deal with plenty of scammers.
A Craigslist post for a one-bedroom apartment in a prime Mission location for $1500/month looked too good to be true. But there was a phone number on the listing, so at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning in late September, I made a call.
A human named Lewis answered, and asked how quickly I could get there. I literally jumped out of bed, and within 30 minutes, I was waiting in the rain on the sidewalk of Treat Avenue. Lewis wasn’t there, so I unlatched the fence and walked to the back of a hidden two-story compound of apartments. Through a window, I saw that Unit A was empty, except for a bottle of hand sanitizer on the kitchen counter. I texted Lewis again, ready to step inside my new home.
This was just one of many rabbit holes I dove down in my quest to find a new San Francisco apartment. I went through the same song and dance in 2020, eventually getting a tip from a friend on a rare rent-controlled Edwardian on Haight Street. But two years later, the master tenant got married, then filed for roommate divorce, sending me back to the ever-changing hellscape of Craigslist apartment scams.
According to data from the FBI’s Crime Complaint Center, that housing hell is only getting hotter. In 2021, 11,578 people reported falling victim to real estate fraud, to the tune of $350,328,166, which the agency (vaguely) states is a 64% increase. Apartment Guide analyzed Better Business Bureau data from 2015-2021, and found that San Francisco had the third-highest number of per capita scams, behind LA and Boise (SF expats be warned).
When I reached out to Mason Wilder of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (which would be a great name for a fake organization), he told me that there weren’t any new scam methods on his radar since my last story. But perhaps due to expanding my search beyond roommate situations to one-bedrooms (painted fingernail emoji), I did find an exciting, new-to-me variety of swindlers ready to take my deposit, before they celebrate the spooky season by ghosting me.
Based on my unscientific study of two month’s worth of Craigslist email alerts, it is damn near impossible to find a real-life one-bedroom in San Francisco under $2000 anywhere beyond SoMa, the TL or “Lower Nob Hill,” which is another way realtors pronounce the word Tenderloin. Those neighborhoods have their charms, but they are not places where I’d like to walk a Shih Tzu twice a day. Outer Sunset and Outer Richmond are the other bastions of affordability, where I found a few $1900 “junior one-bedrooms,” a term which feels particularly condescending to a 38-year-old professional who can barely afford one. However, despite a luxurious bonus wall, those second-of-their-name apartments often lack “amenities” like an oven or stove (“kitchenette” is realtor-speak for “BYO hot plate”).
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An affordable San Francisco apartment isn’t easy to find.
During my 2020 housing quest, I mostly reached out to laughably fake ads from fake master tenants offering fake $450 rooms, but this time around, I didn’t bother with the impossible deals, instead looking for places that were plausibly below market rate — $1,600 one-bedrooms in Glen Park, cramped condos in Diamond Heights for $1,400 or that hidden $1,500 apartment on Treat Avenue. These often get flagged for removal within hours, but not before suckers like me send polite emails asking if dogs are allowed.
Although most of the landlords I contacted lacked a basic grasp of spelling and grammar, to their credit, they were incredibly respectful of their current tenants’ privacy — so much so that their leases prohibited showing the apartments while occupied. Thus, I would need to send over an application fee for a credit check, as well as a deposit and the first month of rent, before I could actually see the apartment. 
I had experienced this red flag before, but these typo-afflicted landlords had a new trick up their sleeves. To calm my fears, they sent over their LinkedIn profile, as well as jpgs of multiple forms of ID — ranging from a driver’s license to a veteran’s ID card — proving that in addition to the rental scams, identity thievery is still alive and well.
I also noticed that the quality of fake roommate ads increased. One notable listing for an $850 room — titled “Bright ­­NOPA Room in a 4BR!!” — stood out in particular. While it is an obscene deal, it’s not far from the 2006-era rent charged by my current master tenant. I’d be living with three late 20s-early 30s women who “love to cook and eat together (at our farmhouse kitchen table!)” and “of course are amazingly successful and wonderful in every way.”
After emailing these four lovely women my spiel about respecting quiet hours and my fetish for wiping down countertops, I got a quick text saying simply “Hello Dan Gentile,” to which I replied, “new phone who dis.” Next came three more messages:
“Hello, I am the property owner Kisha Wallace. You like my Craigslist property.”
“Hello, I am the property owner Kisha Wallace. You like my Craigslist property.”
“Do you want to rent room?”
She asked if I have any pets, and responded “don’t mind.” Then she wanted to know if I had a criminal history, and I said no. Next, she told me that I only needed a 350+ credit score, but (here it comes) I’d need to submit a credit score report and do I want the link?
Reader, I did not want the link. I would do anything not to get the link, so I asked Kisha if I could submit a criminal history instead, which I would be happy to get to secure such a great deal. She said okay, but I still had to click the link. I asked her to fax me the link instead, along with a list of which crimes I would need to commit. The last message I received from her was, “sorry no.” It turns out I would never eat at the farmhouse table alongside those successful and wonderful women.
San Francisco apartment buildings with bay windows and fire escapes.
Kisha was just one of many scamlords who strung me along, but our old friend Lewis was the only one I actually spoke with on the phone. The dream of below-market rent brought me to Treat Avenue that day, but I did not find any potential landlord there.
I called Lewis back and asked him a few questions. Did he live in the city? Yes. What neighborhood? He replied “the eastside,” like a real San Francisco human. Next, he texted me a Rently link that he said would supply a lockbox code. In a moment of reckless desperation, I clicked the link, which listed the rent as a much more realistic $2,600. Lewis explained that the room was discounted due to COVID-19, and I explained that he’s a little late on that, but okay. Then a pop-up showed the true landlord’s phone number, and warned me that if I was communicating with anyone else, I was being scammed.
I read the prompt aloud and mild-mannered Lewis became frantic. He was not trying to scam me, he affirmed. I didn’t have to worry, the apartment belonged to him — he is James, the owner of the apartment — and I can trust him. I then reminded him that an hour ago, his name was Lewis. Fast on his feet, my potential landlord clarified that his name was … Lewis James. I hung up, standing in the rain outside an apartment that would never be mine.
After nearly two months of this rinse-and-repeat pattern of imposterlords, I should know better. Maybe it’s just naivete, a cheap streak, or that I’ve had dumb apartment luck in the past, but I do believe that deals still exist in the city. Up until the day I sent my deposit for a basement in-law unit that only scores a 2.5 on the 10-point Dungeon Scale, I was still emailing Kisha to try to score that uncommon deal.
As for my friend Lewis James, it seems that he hasn’t had much luck finding a tenant. A month after our initial exchange, I texted him back to check on the Treat Avenue apartment. He quickly responded that it was still available. I’m happy to share his phone number with anyone who is interested — all I require in return is a quick credit check, and a list of crimes you’re willing to commit.
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Dan Gentile is the culture editor at SFGATE. He moved to San Francisco from Austin, TX where he worked as a vinyl DJ and freelance writer covering food and music. His writing has been featured in Texas Monthly, American Way, Rolling Stone, Roads & Kingdoms, VICE, Thrillist and more. Email: Dan.Gentile@sfgate.com.

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