How's this for a deal: Downtown San Diego, two bedrooms, two baths, fully furnished, walk-in closets, fireplace, hardwood floors, free parking, washer and dryer, all for $1,000 a month. Amazing, right? A must-see, or way too good to be true?
They aren't new, but scams on Craigslist and other online property-listing sites are still going strong, tricking gullible apartment hunters into handing over their hard-earned money.
This particular listing in question, in San Diego, was spotted by Stephen Cobb, who came across it while looking to relocate from upstate New York for a new job that began Sept. 1 in the sunny Southern California city.
It's the job Cobb was moving to take, as a researcher for the cybersecurity firm ESET, that helped him recognize and avoid falling victim to the alluring apartment scam.
What a deal! What a steal
After seeing this Craigslist posting and checking out the property on Google Earth and Google Street view, "My wife emailed the person who had the listing to say we were interested," Cobb told SecurityNewsDaily. "It was the email we got back that was fishy."
The email began, "I have decided to rent the apartment because my financial situation is not so good at this time and I also cannot live in the US in the near future because I just received a new work contract on the Dunbar Oil platform in the North Sea," Cobb wrote on an ESET blog.
It continued, advising Cobb that he could rent the place simply by sending a $1,000 security deposit through Yahoo Real Estate.
Yahoo does have a real estate Web page, but Cobb knew that it is not used to conduct financial transactions. But would a newcomer to San Diego, or any other city, fall for the trick? Cobb says it's possible.
"As a rule of thumb, if scams are happening, they're working," he said. "If it's going on, somebody's making money."
Pick up the phone
Suspecting something was shady about the $1,000 per month pad and the absentee realtor, Cobb and his wife decided to search other cities on Craigslist for similar deals.
"The same thing was posted in a dozen different cities," Cobb told SecurityNewsDaily, including Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Each listing showed the same apartment with the same pictures and same amenities. "The scammers had tweaked the content [of each post] to include local reference points."
This gets at a larger point, a risk inherent yet hidden, or deemed unimportant, in relation to the convenience of the Internet: If you can get online, you can become an online crook.
"So long as someone's hidden behind an email address, they have way less risk of being apprehended," Cobb said. In regards to Craigslist and other rental-listing sites, he added, "The barrier to creating a Craigslist entry is pretty low, relative to putting a listing in a newspaper. From Des Moines to Dallas to D.C., this person can put these up all day long."
Cobb advises anyone looking for apartments online to pick up the phone and contact the leasing agent or realtor directly. "If you can't get the landlord on the phone, you want to be suspicious," he said.
Scammers go to school
"One of the things that was concerning was that this scam was quite professional," Cobb said. "It was not full of bad grammar and typos you'd see in a phishing email or spam."
As Cobb said, some email scams can be easy to detect out based on their blatant typos and grammatical errors, as is the case with a nasty email campaign that goes after victims' bank accounts by informing them their federal tax payments have been rejected.
"Heaven help us when scam artists have English degrees," Cobb joked.
Though Craigslist took down the offending listing as soon as Cobb's wife contacted them, the overall scheme proves the importance of basic user education and Web smarts.
"Whatever city you are in, take care when looking online for an apartment. There are some great deals out there, but the ones that seem too good to be true probably are," Cobb wrote.