When her housing arrangement for the 2018-2019 school year fell through in April, civil engineering sophomore Aubrey Kraemer and her three roommates joined the group of Cal Poly students still searching for housing for next year.
As the summer months draw closer, students become more desperate to find housing and often search for listings on Craigslist or other websites and social media platforms. Unfortunately, some advertisements that appear promising are actually well-designed scams that prey on college students.
“We needed housing. That’s probably why we went along with it for so long,” Kraemer said. “We wanted it to work out so badly because the house looked so nice, it had a good feel and a great location and we were tired of the process.”
A listing for a charming house downtown caught Kraemer’s and her roommates’ eyes. After exchanging a few emails with the landlord, he told the group they were extremely likely to get the house if they submitted their application and sent in the $2,600 security deposit. The group sent in the application, but asked to see the house before paying the security deposit. When the landlord claimed he could not show the house because the tenants requested complete privacy, they decided to go to the house themselves and knock on the door. The man who answered had lived in the house for 15 years and had no intention of leaving anytime soon.
While Kraemer and her roommates recognized the listing as a scam before it was too late, it is easy for the stress of finding housing to cloud students’ judgments when assessing listings. David Scarry, a landlord with multiple properties in San Luis Obispo, said he believes one of the reasons these scams can be so convincing is the fast-paced nature of real estate.
“It is difficult to tell sometimes, because that’s how the market is, it’s very demanding,” Scarry said. “Sometimes there is a rush because whoever signs first gets it — they can’t hold it for you.”
Even when such scams are reported to the police, there is only so much that can be done to prevent them in the future or to recover the stolen money. San Luis Obispo Police Department (SLOPD) Patrol Lt. Brian Amoroso acknowledged the limitations law enforcement faces with reported scams.
“Contact the agency if you do get scammed, because we can’t do anything if it’s not reported,” Amoroso said. “It is difficult to track, many scammers are not actually in San Luis Obispo. If anyone is asking you to pay through Western Union or any prepaid card, that’s an immediate red flag because the money can’t be tracked or reversed.”
Cal Poly’s Off Campus Programs offer an educated renter certificate program that helps students spot potential scams and become more knowledgeable renters. The following is a list of major red flags to look out for when searching for housing. It was developed for the program with the help of the University Police Department and is simplified here:
- Scammers usually ask for a deposit or first month’s rent before showing the property. The easiest sign of a rental scam is when someone asks for a money transfer via Western Union, Moneygram or Prepaid Visa card.
- The owner is out of the country on a mission, job opportunity or military service. Always meet the landlord or agent in-person and at the property.
- The listing costs significantly less than nearby similar properties. If it seems too good to be true, then chances are it is a scam.
- Emails from scammers are often littered with grammatical mistakes and typos. If the email is difficult to read, lengthy or includes a sad story, then it is possibly a scam.
- Research the email address and phone number of the landlord or owner on Google for reports made on the individual.
- Do not fill out an application without seeing the property. Some apartment communities will offer legitimate applications via a property’s website, but do not submit an application with personal information until verifying the property exists.
- Never, under any circumstances, send money to anyone without securing a lease and confirming the property manager has the legal right to rent the property.
If you fall victim to a housing scam or suspect a listing to be a scam, you can file a report by calling SLOPD at (805) 781-7317.