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Finding an affordable room to rent in the Bay Area is hard enough, but some housing hunters say a roommate-matching website called Roomster is making the process even harder.
As rents have surged in recent years, some clever Bay Area residents have found ways around paying full price on rent. But those savings come with sacrifice, as you’ll see in the following slides.
Update: A day after the publication of this report, Roomster CEO John Shriber issued a new warning on the website’s affiliate page. It reads:
“We recently became aware that an affiliate(s) is either posting, emailing or texting people on Craigslist. This is not allowed. We have removed every affiliate who has been caught doing this in the past, and if we catch you we will remove your account. If you are doing this you must stop at once!!! We do not want this type of traffic.”
End of update.
Finding a room in the Bay Area induces enough headaches, but some house hunters have run into a bizarre roadblock — requests to join a roommate-matching website called Roomster before they can visit the advertised rental.
Veronica Polivanaya spent months combing Craigslist for a room to rent in San Francisco. She responded to countless ads, with subject lines like “Sunny room in Mission District” or “3-bd Victorian in Nob Hill,” that included photos, utility cost breakdowns and sometimes descriptions of the current roommates.
The 26-year-old would respond through Craigslist or by texting a provided number. Often within minutes, she’d receive a response along the lines of “Room still available. Sign up here,” with a link to a website called Roomster.
But after making an account, she could never find the rooms that had been advertised on Craigslist.
This same thing kept happening – at least 10 times, Polivanaya said – so she decided to get off Craigslist altogether.
Founded in 2003 by John Shriber and Roman Zaks, Roomster calls itself the “world’s largest multi-platform social network for connecting roommates.” The New York-based company operates in 192 countries and claims to have 10 million users.
“More than 400 thousand new users” sign up each month, the site claims.
Some of these signups come from Roomster’s “Affiliate Marketing Program.” Individual guerrilla marketers receive about 20 cents on average per referred user, CEO John Shriber told SFGATE.
RELATED VIDEO: Is living at the San Francisco airport cheaper than renting an apartment?
Program guidelines prohibit affiliates from using “unsolicited bulk mail” or other mechanisms that “falsely generates hits or signups.” Though the official program terms do not mention Craigslist by name, a red banner on the Affiliate Program homepage reads:
“Attention affiliates! We will not do business with any affiliates who post on Craigslist. We will not accept any leads that come from Craigslist. We will not pay for any leads that come from Craigslist. If you post on Craigslist your affiliate account will be terminated.”
Shriber said users found to be in violation of the Craigslist stipulation are immediately blocked and removed from the program. Six months ago Roomster froze new affiliate signups to “focus on quality control,” he added.
“To suggest that Roomster is scamming anyone is an outright lie,” Shriber told SFGATE over email. “We have absolutely nothing to do with this. In fact we do everything we can to stop this behavior. We can not be responsible for the actions of others.”
When asked how Roomster verifies where leads come from, Shriber replied, “When affiliates sign up we ask them to give us a link to where we can find our Roomster links, so we can spot check.”
Of the 64 reviews on the Roomster page of the Better Business Bureau website, not a single one was positive. The Bureau said its files indicate a “pattern of complaints concerning a renewal policy and deceptive advertising.” Many consumers complained that the disclosure of automatic renewal was not made clear at signup time and that they had responded to “misleading ads on local Craigslist to drive users toward their website.”
Bay Area resident Michelle Adelman decided to sign up for Roomster after being directed there from a post in a Facebook group. Adelman found that in order to respond to messages on the site, she had to purchase a subscription, so she bought the cheapest plan. Plans unlock Roomster messaging capabilities and access to users’ social media profiles. Subscriptions range from five to 30 days and cost $7.95 to $24.95.
The following month, Adelman said her plan automatically renewed and the company charged her about $7 to receive a subscription refund.
John M. Simpson, the director of Consumer Watchdog’s privacy and technology project, says he would take Roomster’s comments with a “tremendous grain of salt.”
“What you’ll see with other websites, where horrible things are going on, they say they’re handling it but then they benefit from it,” Simpson said. “I don’t know if that’s happening with Roomster, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is.”
Polivanaya had never heard of Roomster prior to her Craigslist housing search, “so I thought, this must be a credible site to vet potential roommates,” she said. Besides, with rent-controlled apartments abounding in San Francisco, room prices fluctuate wildly and it can be hard to parse “too good to be true” listings from real ones.
Polivanaya isn’t the only Bay Area housing hunter who says she’s been duped by Roomster affiliates. In less than 24 hours, more than 20 people had responded to two Facebook posts in Bay Area housing groups saying they had been redirected to Roomster while searching for homes online.
One woman said she had been directed to the site over 20 times. Two respondents even claimed the incessant Roomster redirects deterred them from looking for housing in San Francisco.
Polivnanaya eventually snagged a nice apartment in the NoPa neighborhood. She found it on Facebook.
Michelle Robertson is an SFGATE staff writer. Email her at email@example.com or find her on Twitter at @mrobertsonsf.
Michelle Robertson is an SFGATE features reporter.
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