By: Glenn Sellers
Craigslist scams take all shapes and sizes. For tips on how to recognize these scams and stay safe, you can see a prior post I wrote here.
Since that post, a new breed of these scams has come to my attention. This scam is targeted at “destination communities” such as ski resorts and beach towns, so it is especially relevant to those of us at My Consumer Tips, a Colorado-based publication. If you live in, frequent, occasionally visit, or even just plan to visit a location like this, be sure to read up.
A common feature of destination communities is that individuals travel long distances to get to the “destination.” Whether in a remote region of the Rocky Mountains hours from the nearest major city, or a beach not too far south of Los Angeles, people will travel across the country or even the world to get to this destination.
This makes it difficult to check out a rental property beforehand. Maybe you plan on renting a beach house in the Florida Keys for the winter and you live in New York. Maybe you want to rent a villa in Northern California wine country for a weeklong stay, but you live outside Kansas City. Perhaps you’re trying to move to Aspen and live in Michigan, but need to find a condo before the move. In all of these cases, you’re looking to spend your money on a vacation or a move, not simply going to this far-off destination first to see if the lodging is acceptable.
Scammers know this and have been preying on it, posting fake advertisements for these types of rentals on Craigslist and similar sites. These scams will ask you to wire money as a deposit or prepayment, sometimes as just a $100 fee to hold the room, other times asking for the entire cost of the lodging up front. The latter scenario turned up tragically in one case out of Aspen earlier this year, where an X-Games athlete’s parents were scammed out of thousands of dollars when trying to book a rental to watch their son compete. When the family arrived from Canada, the supposed rental turned out to be a construction site and they never recovered their money.
One Colorado sheriff’s office has seen the problem so frequently that they have issued a public warning and have investigators dedicated to solving the problem. This sheriff’s office has jurisdiction over four world-class ski resorts, including Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, and Copper Mountain, illustrating the sort of areas these scams frequently target. Still, there is little that law enforcement can do, as many of these scammers are based abroad and, being professionals, cover their tracks well.
So you still want to go on a long vacation or move to a resort town, but don’t want to stay in an expensive hotel while you search for lodging in a tight housing market? Then heed the following tips:
- Try out AirBnB and VRBO. Both do rentals ranging from a night to indefinitely. While they may be more expensive than Craigslist, the extra cost comes with a company that guarantees your purchase. Both also provide assurances for the landlord, making them more confident to rent to a wide array of clientele. For more information about these, see the post created by one of my colleagues regarding the “Sharing Economy.”
- If you must use Craigslist, have a friend or loved one in the area visit the place first, or just stomach the travel and go yourself. The latter option might not be too appealing for faraway destinations, but if you’re putting a substantial amount of money on the line it’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s also devastating to show up somewhere expecting a room or condo that isn’t there or that you don’t have a legitimate right to.
- Use a secure form of payment. While trusted services like those listed above are the most secure, using other financial intermediaries that are a trusted source or provide fraud protection is still preferable. For example, if a landlord near Lake Tahoe asks you to send payment, inquire if they have an umbrella leasing organization that you can send money to or pay via credit card. A lot of legitimate landlords will have an association or property management company that can receive payment. Above all, do not just send cash, check, money order, or use a service like Western Union with an unverified landlord. If the landlord refuses using a trusted intermediary, it’s likely a fraud.