We applied to dozens of Craigslist SF rental scams. Here's what happened. – SFGATE

In search of that ever-elusive cheap San Francisco rent, I dove deep into the world of phony Craigslist apartment ads.
Despite being the most expensive rental market in the country, there actually appears to be a wealth of San Francisco apartments for rent for under $500. Direct your browser to Craigslist’s housing section and you’ll find eye-catching listings like this on the first page:
“$365, 768ft, I like friendly roommate..!”
“Here is a private bedroom you’re looking for..! ($370)”
“Private Bedroom in a Popular Area—” ($400)”
What more could you possibly want, aside from a computer free of malware and a social security number not for sale on the dark web?
A typical example of a fake Craigslist apartment ad.
These types of definitely-fake apartment listings are just one of the many things that make house hunting in San Francisco one of the most nightmarish parts of living in the city. As someone who is currently in the process of relocating (hmu if you have a large room and love Shih Tzus), scouring Craigslist and Facebook housing groups has become my new part-time job.
Like everyone, I want an uncommon deal, and with the pandemic there are plenty to be had. Three weeks into my search, I feel like I’m watching a stock ticker as I notice the same listings become discounted, move-in dates shift back and buildings looking so thirsty for tenants that they’ll throw in a free month and $1,000 Amazon gift card. A flood of cheap furnished rooms with mid-century-ish nightstands imply a rush of Airbnb Lords quitting the STR game. But most of all, I see scams.
By my unscientific count, 16 out of 120 listings on the first page of shared rooms on Craigslist San Francisco looked fraudulent. By a scientific count from an NYU study that examined 2 million Craigslist ads, my results are fairly representative of the whole: the company flags 6% for removal, but only caught 47% of the frauds (Craigslist did not respond to multiple emails).
Shockingly enough, they do actually work.
According to data from Apartment List, 5.2 million people have lost money to a rental scam, which amounts to 6.4% of U.S. renters. Surprisingly, younger renters are more likely to fall for these scams, with 19 to 29-year-olds 42% more likely to be victims. The median loss is $400, although a scary 31.4% lost more than $1,000.
Typically that payment is requested by super shady means, ranging from old fashioned money order to cryptocurrency to iTunes gift cards. The popularity of Venmo and Cash App makes these scams even more dangerous.
“Those methods of payment don’t have the same types of anti-fraud protections that credit cards or even traditional checks have,” says John Breyault, vice president of fraud at the National Consumers League. “I’d caution consumers against Venmoing that first month of rent to a potential landlord unless you’ve physically laid eyes on the rental yourself.”
The one reassuring stat is that despite San Francisco having the highest rate of fraudulent listings in the country (47.8%), less than one percent of us tech-savvy renters took the bait, compared to a staggering 10.9% in Dallas.
So naturally, for the sake of journalism and the promise of deliciously cheap rent, I decided to take the bait. Over and over and over.
To see if I should have even an ounce of hope, first I contacted a couple of apartment locators from J Wavro Associates to get their professional opinion on my chances of finding a diamond in the rough. Neither seemed to even understand my question and on clarification, they assured me they had never come across any legitimate $450 listings in their career.
Out to prove them wrong, I waded through an endless list of fake ads that all looked pretty similar. Rent under $450. A grainy photo that looks like a horror film set, a sterile stock photo or an attractive profile pic of my future roommate, “a very accomplished Rusian ladies that simply separated.” Expect misspelled platitudes with weird punctuation (“*~ Hoping your lovely time!”) and a list of very appealing amenities like “newer memory foam mattress and jacuzzi tub”. Some have clearly lifted text from other listings, like one 10’x13’ room in a 3 bedroom with brand new OPENABLE windows, located at 24th and Folsom St. (“HELLO Philz Coffee!”). A few roommates even sound real (“Me: Gay male architect – late 30’s. Single, aside from my Australian cattle dog, Rocky (35lbs).”
A typical example of a fake Craigslist apartment ad.
But that description almost always includes a shady link to a website with the domain name “.casa” which leads to an “application” that casually asks for a whole lot of personal information or to run a “free” credit check, which the Better Business Bureau warns will likely include a hidden recurring monthly fee.
The listings that do have email contacts, which in hindsight I really should’ve made a dummy Gmail account before contacting (sorry IT department!), immediately trigger a torrent of eager responses from multiple senders directing me to the webpage for “their real listing.” However, before I see it, it’s very important that I share that juicy personal information because my new landlord’s husband is understandably hesitant about letting just anyone see photos of his fabulous $395 a month Lower Haight two bedroom with a jacuzzi.
Another breed of scammer tries to take the conversation to text message. This is particularly enticing, because the medium itself just feels much more real, even if their first message is “do u need Room ??” In this racket, the scammer says they’ll call you to discuss the details… but only after you supply a Google Voice verification code, which is texted to you from another number along with a link and a counterproductive disclaimer that you should not share it with anyone. It was such a curious technique that my finger actually hovered over the link for a moment.
“There’s some recent statistics that people are starting to fall for text-based scams more,” says Mason Wilder, Senior Research Specialist at the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. “There’s a shift from phishing emails. Just on a basic subconscious level, people are more inclined to click on links in text messages because they just haven’t wired their brains to dismiss things as much as email.”
RELATED: No, I’m not leaving San Francisco
While juggling a few legitimate Zoom interviews and masked showings, I tried to keep conversations going with all my scamlords, playing the role of a dumb renter who 1) is desperate for a cheap room, and 2) has money and can send it very quickly if only they’d tell me more about my future roommates other than “I am Carolyn.” To their credit, they did a great job of staying on-script and didn’t fall for my own scam, which was to try to waste as much of their time as possible. Typically conversation fell off after I’d tell them that the Google Voice code I received was 123456. Whoops, I meant 123455. Still not working? Can’t you just send pics? I have cash!
I wish I could say I found one of these mega-cheap apartments, or at least that I broke down the defenses of a scammer and made them accidentally reveal their location that I would then pass on to the FBI (the California attorney general’s press office directed me to file a report at ic3.gov). But all I found was a whole lot of spam.
The legitimate half of my apartment hunt was genuinely enlightening though. As a newcomer to the city whose first house was with a friend, this was my virgin dive into the depths of Facebook housing groups, and I now feel like I’ve seen inside every variety of apartment in the city (and learned that many, many people don’t make their beds before taking photos).
And in the end, I found a very attractive rent-controlled room on Haight St. the old fashioned way, via a word of mouth tip from a friend. It looks like a done deal as long as my little Shih Tzu Peanut has a successful playdate tomorrow with a shy mutt named Roubey. It may not cost under $500 or have a memory foam mattress and jacuzzi, but at least I’ve already seen for myself that it does in fact have windows that open.
Dan Gentile is the culture editor at SFGate. Email: Dan.Gentile@sfgate.com | Twitter: @Dannosphere
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.


Leave a Comment