How to spot a Craigslist housing scam

Update [8/10/2018]: I originally published this over two years ago, and remarkably it’s still just as relevant today. It was titled “How to spot a Craigslist apartment scam (at least in San Francisco)”, but I’ve heard from people all over the country that this is happening everywhere.

Apartment hunting sucks. Because rental prices are insane in San Francisco, finding an apartment here sucks significantly more than usual. The fact that Craigslist is the de-facto way to do it makes it even worse, because Craigslist also sucks (specifically for apartment hunting). So if you’re apartment hunting in San Francisco using Craigslist, make sure to have a bottle of bourbon handy.

To make things worse, people are assholes. Especially people who use the internet to try to scam people. And when you have a hot, competitive rental market, assholes come out of the woodwork to try to trick and cheat people who are just trying to find a place to live.

So, if you’re looking to rent an apartment, here are some quick tips to avoid being scammed. They might seem obvious, but I’ve seen several people here almost fall for this stuff.

If they want you to put down a deposit before seeing the apartment, it’s a scam.

This is the obvious giveaway. They’ll write claiming the tenant is still there or they can’t get in the unit because the tenant is out of town. But because they’re a swell person, they’ll put you first on some list as long as you fill out an application and send a deposit over. If someone can’t show you the apartment, then it isn’t real.

Here’s an example:

About viewing: Please note that the apartment will be available for viewing from March 31st, 2016 because the current occupant is out of the city for relocation this week and will be back on the 30th of March and which is why I said that the earliest viewing date is (March 31st) so you can schedule to come view the unit as from March 31st by 10AM..
Please understand that the rental market in San Francisco is competitive so the apartment is on high demand and if you are really interested in this apartment I will advice you try and secure it now so that you do not loose it to other prospective tenants who are also in contact. Like I said before who secures it first gets the unit. To lock down the unit you will have to deposit only the first month’s rent plus the refundable security deposit after completing all the relevant rental documents. Note that if you choose to reserve the unit now, and if after you have viewed the unit on March 31st and you are not satisfied you can request for a refund which will be given to you that same instant. The terms and conditions of the contract gives you full refund if you do not want the apartment upon viewing.

If they say one person is ahead of you and you should apply quickly, it’s probably a scam.

Most apartments probably fall in two scenarios. Either a huge amount of people are interested, or no one is. If someone writes back saying “1 other possible renter has shown interest”, then most likely it’s a scam.

This will probably be followed by them encouraging you to send over an application or deposit to make a “reservation” (which isn’t a thing):

Lastly, please note that 1 other possible renter have shown interest in this apartment also, and I will be obliged to rent out to anyone that makes reservation now.

If you find a place that seems to be an amazing deal, it’s probably a scam.

If 2-bedroom apartments in the Mission are renting for $4,000+ and you find one for $2,800, don’t get too excited. Any place that looks too good to be true probably is.

If the Craigslist ad has a reply to name of someone’s actual name @ gmail, it might be a scam.

At first I took this as a sign that it was legit. But then realized these assholes now are researching local agents and creating fake gmail addresses under their name to appear trustworthy. This rarely is the case. I’ve gotten emails from:


All fake.

If the lease term is super flexible, it’s probably a scam.

In a competitive rental market, no one is going to offer you flexible leases. They’re going to maximize revenue and lock you down for as little or as long as possible (depending on rental laws). So if you see someone seemingly willing to just do any kind of lease possible, it’s a scam.

Available Discount for different lease Terms:
1. THREE MONTHS PLAN: Pay for three month rental fee plus refundable security deposit and get a discount of 10% on rent.
2. SIX MONTHS PLAN: Pay for six month rental fee plus refundable security deposit and get a discount of 10% on rent.
3. ONE YEAR PLAN: Pay for one year rental fee plus refundable security deposit and get a discount of 15% on rent.

If it has any of these sentences, it’s probably a scam.

Scammers aren’t creative, and tend to recycle the same emails. I’ve gotten these lines word for word on numerous occasions:

  • If this apartment satisfies what you are looking for,do let me know so I can forward to you the tenancy form for review.
  • I will be obliged to rent out to anyone that makes reservation now.
  • Lease term is flexible, month to month, 6 months or 1 year lease term
  • Please keep in mind that our homes are very popular and are leasing extremely fast.

I hope this is helpful, and might even be applicable to other cities. Post any other tips in the comments (or whatever Medium calls them), or send them to me on Twitter and I’ll add them here.

Good luck out there. Finding an overpriced apartment really is a nightmare.

I’m Brenden, 6-year SF resident building LaunchKit to help mobile developers and building Cluster to help families/friends/teachers.