- Why Escrow.com
- Escrow 101
With the continued problems in the housing market, the property rental market is
booming nationwide. And it's simply a matter of economics. With more and more properties
going unsold, property owners are increasingly turning single and multi-family properties
into rental properties. Likewise, with uncertain property values and prospects for long-term
stability, let alone growth, in the housing market, more and more individuals and families
that would have been home buyers are now looking to rent apartments, homes, condos, and duplexes.
And in certain locales, the property rental market is always strong. Examples of such include
areas around military bases, where servicemen and women and their families are always transient,
and vacation locales, where property rentals are an important part of the tourism-based economy in many parts of the country.
And how do landlords and renters find one another today? Increasingly, it is online. Think about it. Whether you are looking for a place to rent in the same city, or across the country, one can simply look online for a place in your price range and in your desired location - all while not leaving your desk or couch. And increasingly, the site of choice is Craigslist. According to the website Statistic Brain (2012), Craigslist is used by approximately 50 million Americans annually. While a whole panoply of goods and services are available on the site via free classified ads, the property rental category has seen extremely rapid growth of late. Yet, the popularity of the site - with a great brand name and easy access - has been tempered by the widespread reports of rental property scams and rip-offs being reported by Craigslist users. The sad thing is that reports of rental scams on Craigslist date back to at least 2008 (Lysiak, 2008), with many of the frauds originating from outside the U.S. In fact, in 2009, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a fraud alert detailing a Craigslist rental scam originating in Nigeria - which still is the basic "modus operandi" for most such (see Sidebar below).
Homeowners list their homes for sale with real estate agents, who will list the homes for sale in the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) and also with public search websites, which allow individuals to query homes for sale via the Internet. Nigerian scammers find homes listed for sale on these public search sites, copy the pictures and listings verbatim, and then post the information onto Craigslist under available housing rentals, without the consent or knowledge of Craigslist, who has been notified.
After the posting is listed, unsuspecting individuals contact the poster, who is Nigerian, for more information on the "rental." The Nigerian scammer will state that they had to leave the country very quickly to do missionary or contract work in Africa and were unable to rent their house before leaving, therefore they have to take care of this remotely. The "homeowner" sends the prospective renter an application and tells them to send them first and last month's rent to the Nigerian scammer via Western Union. The prospective renter is further told that if they "qualify," they will send them the keys for their house. Once the money is wired to the scammer, they show up at the house, see the home is actually for sale, are unable to access the property, and their money is gone.
Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
There is a common thread for all of the Craigslist rental scams. In all of these instances,
the would-be renter is ripped-off by a scammer using a fake Craigslist listing of a house or
apartment for rent - often at a rate far below market to lure their attention
(often at half or more of what the "market rate" would be for a like rental home, condominium, or apartment)..
The ad looks quite legitimate - all the more because the photos of the home are likely taken from
a "real" real estate listing for the home. Often, to make the potential renter believe that they
are dealing with the "real" property owner, the scammer will use the legitimate owner's name in
their email correspondence and phone conversations. The perpetrator of the fraud will also have
a seemingly valid reason why they have left the area - or most often the country and cannot personally
meet the would-be renter. Reported cases involve everything from missionary and military service to
needing to reunite with family abroad. The fraudster's goal is to abscond with the renter's security
deposit and possibly even take rent in advance for the fake rental property listed on Craigslist.
Beyond that however is an even bigger threat - identity theft. Recently, Rhode Island Attorney
General Peter Kilmartin specifically warned the public regarding scams involving such fake rental
listings on Craigslist: "Scam artists are posting fake rental properties on Craigslist, luring people
to provide personal information - including social security numbers and bank routing and credit
card numbers - on false rental agreements." Ostensibly, the would-be renter is told that the information
is necessary to perform a background check to process their rental application. However, the scammer's real
intent is to gain access to the renter's sensitive information, in order to commit identity fraud with the
personal and financial account information the unwitting would-be renter is providing.
Thus, the potential losses from such rental fraud on Craigslist often can go far beyond the loss of a security deposit and possibly first/last month's rent. When the specter of ID fraud is included, the losses from such fraudulent activity on Craigslist skyrocket.
. And it must be remembered that as with all instances of Internet fraud, those cases that are
actually reported to authorities are but the "tip of the iceberg, so the problem is likely far
greater than what can be documented through the reported statistics.
The creativity of fraud perpetrators is truly amazing. In the following sections, we detail just
a representative slice of the Craigslist rental frauds that are taking place every day around the country.
Dora Betts, who is a realtor in Waco, Texas was surprised to find a home that she had listed for sale as being listed as available to rent on Craigslist by a scammer who had taken the information and photos from her legitimate listing and replicated it on the site. It took Ms. Betts several inquiries and complaints to Craigslist before the site took down the listing, even with her proof that the rental listing was fake (Kenney, 2012). Likewise, in Duluth, Minnesota, Realtor Bruce Lurye was surprised when he posted a legitimate home sale listing for a property that was currently being rented for $1300/month on a Friday, only to learn from a would-be renter that the same house was listed on Craigslist on the following Monday for $800/month. The inquiry to the "real" realtor handling the property saved the potential renter from being scammed, and highlighted the problem of Craigslist rental fraud to Mr. Lurye and others in the Duluth area. As Duluth Police Department Investigator Shana Greene commented, "We're Minnesota nice but we have to realize that when we are out on the Internet, we don't know what we're dealing with." What's worse is with the fraudster most often being overseas, the authorities have very little power to stop such scams or recover lost monies. As Ms. Greene remarked, "Any crime that happens outside the United States, there's not a lot the police departments can do." (quoted in Rusch, 2012, n.p.).
Actually seeing the property in person - and even moving in - is no guarantee that the house you rented off Craigslist is being legitimately rented to you. In fact, in several recent cases from the Orlando-Sanford, Florida area, families had actually moved into and lived for several weeks in homes that had been foreclosed upon and were sitting vacant. The fraudulent landlords had simply broken into the idle properties, replacing the locks with their own and posting the homes on Craigslist for rent. The homes were then shown to prospective tenants, who had seen the properties listed on Craigslist and followed-up - even paying security deposits and first month's rent - to the scammers. Eventually, the banking interests who actually "owned" the distressed properties discovered that they were occupied and evicted the families, who were left with no recourse for their losses, other than the fact that in this case, the Craigslist scammers were indeed caught by Florida authorities (Wilson, 2012). Likewise, in Columbus, Ohio, a young couple became suspicious of the "landlord" they had met to tour a vacant home from a Craigslist ad. After giving the man $250 for a deposit on the property, the couple called the realtor listed on the real estate sign and were informed they had been scammed. The bogus landlord, of course, was unreachable, and that deposit money was gone (Weiker, 2012).
Military members and their families are particularly susceptible to being victims of Craigslist rental scams, due to the fact that they often have to quickly - and remotely - find a place to live near their next base assignment. An example of this is the situation around Ft. Hood in Killeen, Texas, where recently half a dozen servicemen and women and their families have been victimized in a series of Craigslist rental scams. In each of the cases, the Army soldiers wired security deposits and first month's rent to the scammer via Western Union, losing $1500 on average. Local real estate manager Andrew Mills commented on the sophisticated nature of the fraud operators, stating: ""Someone is taking pictures from Craigslist from our listed properties for rent, and putting their own price and name on there. In some cases they're using the actual owners name and renting the properties or trying to rent the properties. It's very professional in that they have the emails down pat, the addresses, the names, so when you do your background check using a county tax record you'll see the same name that's attached to the house" (quoted in Cheng, 2012, n.p.). So, the would-be renter, even after doing their due diligence, would appear to be entering a valid rental agreement. However, as Army Specialist Mary Ray put it quite bluntly: "I think we all work too hard for some scumbag to just come scam us out of our money because he has nothing else better to do" (quoted in Cheng, 2012, n.p.). Yet, this is not an isolated instance by any means, as military-affiliated renters have been targeted all across the country, from airmen and women seeking to rent near the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota (Ogden, 2012) to naval families near Naval Base Kitsap in Washington State (Farley, 2012) to Army families near Fort Drum in New York (State of New York, Office of the Attorney General (2012). Preying upon a stressed, under-paid service member and their family in such a manner has been characterized quite succinctly by Kate Bode, who is a property manager with Details Property Management outside the Kitsap, Washington naval facility: "This (the Craigslist scam threat) has added a level of stress that's not necessary. And it's evil." (quoted in Farley, 2012, n.p.)..
While rental fraud is a year-round problem, the summer travel season only ramps things up
for fraudsters on Craigslist, due to so many individuals and families looking for
summer rentals for their vacation plans. The scammers preying upon those looking
for vacation rentals on Craigslist can be especially creative. For instance,
in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Lourdes Spurlock wanted to surprise her husband
with a weekend beach getaway. She found a cottage to rent on Craigslist and
wired the landlord $600. However, the couple was stunned when they knocked
on the door of the home to find it occupied, and the home-owner was just as
surprised to find-out his property had been listed on Craigslist. Needless
to say, the Spurlocks were out their rental fee, as the scammer was nowhere
to be found. This came as no surprise however to the Virginia Beach authorities.
As Tammy Beiderman with the Virginia Beach Police Department's economic
crimes unit characterized the situation: "There is so much fraud on Craigslist,
you wouldn't believe it. All day, every day. If you go on Craigslist and you
look for a place to rent in Virginia Beach, you run into it all over"
(quoted in Hulette, 2012, n.p.). Smarter Travel magazine specifically
warned readers against using Craigslist for vacation rentals due to the rampant
fraud in this area, directing them to reputable vacation property rental sites, including:
What is Craigslist's official position on such scams? Well, the company states that - like eBay - it is officially not a party to the transaction - taking a buyer, and seller, beware approach. In essence, it is a hands-off stance, true to the founder Craig Newmark's philosophy of non-control over the site, but yet oddly out-of-touch with the needs of its users. From Craigslist's website, the sidebar below presents the company's advice to users in regards to avoiding scams.
You can sidestep would-be scammers by following these common-sense rules:
And all of this is especially concerning due to the fact that Craiglist has been aware for at least five years that its site has been the source of what are likely thousands - perhaps tens of thousands - of cases of rental-based fraud. For the firm to continue to take a "hands-off" position and maintain that it is not "involved" in any way with transactions originating from ads placed on its site is simply not an ethically defensible position. By allowing the fraudulent rental scam ads to continue to appear on its site alongside what are legitimate ads for rental property, Craigslist risks its reputation, and indeed its business model. This is because if the general public comes to believe that "all" or "the vast majority" of Craigslist ads for home, apartment, or vacation rentals are fraudulent - and to be avoided - then the online public - which is still a coveted demographic - may simply stop seeing Craigslist as a "go to" site when they want to buy and sell items, find a job, or even make personal connections. If one apple can spoil the entire bunch, a perception that one's site is not trustworthy is tantamount to a disaster for any online company. Thus, Craigslist faces what are no doubt hard choices in this regard. The firm's leadership must weigh the legal and marketing implications of whether to become more actively involved in transactions - perhaps vetting the parties and/or providing services/assistance - versus the value of maintaining the status quo and risking maintaining the laissez-faire - combined with caveat emptor - nature of the site in light of its social responsibilities and marketing concerns.
What are some simple steps you can take to prevent being scammed in a rental transaction
originating on Craigslist? There are certainly some simple, "free" steps you should always
take when looking at a potential rental property from the site.
Yet, perhaps the best advice for both potential renters - and landlords - today
, absent any policy changes from Craigslist, is to provide your own security in
the transaction. Yes, this will come at a cost. However, the relative cost is minor
compared to losing thousands of dollars to an Internet scammer on Craigslist - both
from the initial loss of a security deposit and advance rent in the transaction and
the larger threat of identity theft. This author has two suggestions in this regard:
1. Use of a Reputable Online Escrow Service: In this article, we have seen that handing over cash and wiring funds to a landlord in a rental property transaction are very risky propositions and should be avoided. Further, even verifying the "owner's name" and checking the property records with the county can not provide an absolute assurance to the would-be renter that they are dealing with a legitimate property owner who has the right to lease the home or other property in question. Likewise, for the landlord , how can he or she be assured that the renter will come through with proper payments? In sum, how then can both parties - the landlord and his/her potential tenant - be assured of the legitimacy of one another? The answer is to make use of an online escrow service.
Where should you turn to in order to provide such escrow services? Before you make the mistake of Googling "online escrow" or conduct a similar search, do be aware that there are a number of scam escrow sites. In that regard, you will recall from Craigslist's site that the company specifically cautions against the use of online escrow services (See Sidebar: Craigslist - Scams - Personal Safety Tips). While some start-up firms specifically cater to the online rental property market, such as Austin, Texas-based DepositGuard (http://www.depositguard.com/), the leader in the online escrow field, having processed over $1 billion in secure transactions over the past decade is Escrow.com, based in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. In fact, the company is the only firm licensed to perform escrow services in all fifty states and is one of only two escrow firms licensed by the State of California.
Using Escrow.com's system, which can be initiated by either the landlord or the renter in such a transaction, both parties can be assured of their desired outcomes. For the renter, using Escrow.com affords him or her the opportunity to know that they can safely provide funds for security deposits and/or rent that will be applied correctly and made to the legitimate owner of the property. For the landlord or property owner, using Escrow.com allows him or her to know that the renter has sufficient funds available in the escrow account set-up for the specific transaction to progress to the next stage in the process (from securing the deposit to eventually even collecting monthly rent via online escrow). In essence, the presence of the third-party assures that payments will be made once a certain milestone (each of which has to be agreed to by both parties) is met. No more would a would-be renter simply wire or send money - on faith - with the prospect of the key to their desired rental property be sent in return. So, whether or not a rental agreement begins on Craigslist, a classified ad, or even from a local individual passing a local property with a "for rent" sign in front, Escrow.com' system provides a new level of assurance in the landlord-tenant relationship.
Commenting on the value of Escrow.com in this vein, Brandon Abbey, the firm's President and Managing Director, observed that:
"Unfortunately, we see rental fraud instances increasing daily across the globe. We've built our business around protecting buyers and seller, as well as renters and landlords, from losing money on a fraudulent transaction. It's important to note that escrow fraud is rampant as well, and it's important to work with a fully licensed and accredited online escrow company. As far as I know, we are the only ones that can make that claim…something we are very proud to say, I might add."
2. Use of a Commercial Validation Service: As we have seen in the fraud cases reported in this article, literally seeing a property and even setting foot in it is not an assurance that the "landlord" is legitimate and offering a valid property. Thus, a commercial provider has stepped in to provide just such a service to provide a greater element of assurance in online transactions. The company is aptly named WeGoLook (http://www.wegolook.com).
Based in Oklahoma City, WeGoLook employs a network of over 7,000 "lookers" nationwide. For a nominal fee, potential renters of property can have a WeGoLook Looker® provide an inspection report on the prospective rental, including taking ten digital photos of the home or condominium. Additionally, the company offers its services at a discounted rate for sellers, who can contract to have a WeGoLook Looker® compile a report that can be offered to prospective renters as verification of the offering. The company's services will work with any item sold online - cars, motorcycles, recreational vehicles, jewelry, etc., so long as it can be made publicly available to the Looker®. The process works as follows:
As its offerings apply to providing assurance in the area of home and property rentals,
Robin N. Smith, who is the Co-Founder of WeGoLook commented that:
Fraudsters are increasingly savvy with fake listings which appear legitimate. Online consumers or potential rental victims can avoid costly mistakes by simply dispatching a "Looker" to verify existence or condition of an item, property or person. In fact, WeGoLook arranges to meet with the Seller and⁄or Property Owner- which is difficult to do if the Scammer is out-of-state or country. Remember- WeGoLook When You Can't!”
In the end, this author believes that the return on investment - and the potential for large loss avoidance - will make the use of both online escrow services and personal inspection providers simply a "best practice" for high dollar online transactions. Doing so - and recognizing the value and cost-effectiveness of such services - will go a long way towards combatting the rampant problem of Craigslist fraud in rentals and other areas. While this represents a "bottom-up" approach to attacking the problem, this author firmly believes that Craig Newmark and the leadership of Craigslist should choose to actively address their long-standing fraud issues in this market that is of vital importance both to their firm and to the housing needs of the nation in our "rent first" environment we find ourselves in at present.
Cheng, Chris (2012). Local soldiers become target of online scam. KXXV-TV, May 10,
2012. Available at:
Farley, Josh (2012). Craigslist rental scam leaves growing rank of victims in Kitsap: Beware numbers too good to be real. Kitsap Sun, May 12, 2012. Available at:
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Press Release: New Nigerian Scheme Utilizing Craigslist (Issued July 22, 2009). Available at:
Goessl, Leigh (2012). Authorities warn of rental property scams listed on Craigslist. Digital Journal, May 9, 2012. Available at:
Hulette, Elisabeth (2012). Beach police raise alarm on Craigslist rental scams. The Virginian-Pilot, May 13, 2012. Available at:
Kenney, Amanda (2012). Fake Realty Scam Hits Waco. KCEN-TV, May 8 2012. Available at:
Lysiak, Matt (2008). Craigslist scams targeting renters desperate for affordable apartments. New York Daily News, February 11, 2008. Available at:
Morse, Caroline (2012). 10 Tricky Travel Scams (and How to Beat Them). Smarter Travel, May 8, 2012. Available at:
Ogden, Eloise (2012). Scammers prey on unsuspecting renters. Minot Daily News, May 13, 2012. Available at:
Rusch, Katey (2012). Craigslist Scammers Target Twin Ports. WDIO-TV, May 4, 2012. Available at:
http://www.wdio.com/article/stories/S2607411.shtml?cat=10335.Statistic Brain (2012).
Craigslist Statistics (April 2012). Available at:
State of New York, Office of the Attorney General (2012). Press Release: A.G. Schneiderman Issues "Consumer Alert" To Protect New Yorkers From Craigslist Rental Scams (Issued March 21, 2012).Available at:
Weiker, Jim (2012). Rent scam snares unwary. The Columbus Dispatch, May, 6, 2012. Available at:
Wilson, Sarah (2012). Rental fraud hits home. Winter Park/Maitland Observer, May 9, 2012. Available at:
David C. Wyld (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Robert Maurin Professor of Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, and executive educator. He also serves as the Director of the Reverse Auction Research Center (http://reverseauctionresearch.com/), a hub of research and news in the expanding world of competitive bidding. His blog, Business News 24/7, can be viewed at http://wyld-business.blogspot.com/