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Six ways to avoid apartment scams on Craigslist

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Damian Dovarganes/AP/File

(Read caption) Craigslist may be a popular choice for searching for apartments, but it can be risky. Prospective renters can reduce their risks by verifying the owners and avoiding giving out personal information right away.

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Using Craigslist to find an apartment is not a novel idea. As a matter of fact, it's by far the most popular way for prospective renters to find a new place. But it doesn't come without its drawbacks, the biggest being fraud and scams designed to separate you from your hard-earned money. Here are a few of the biggest scams currently going and some tips on how to protect yourself from them.

1. Always Verify the Owner

One of the most popular Craigslist scams these days involves a crook gaining access to the apartment or home, and showing it to you under the guise of being the real landlord or owner. To sweeten the pot, and get you to bite, they might even offer a deal on the deposit, or pick up some of the fees. As you can imagine, this has the potential of ending badly with you losing significant money. They'll end up taking your first month's rent and security deposit and you'll never see them — or your money — again.

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When looking at Craigslist listings, always make sure you verify the owner of the apartment or home. Most counties and cities have websites in place that allow you to look up public records to determine the real owner of the property. If this is not a possibility, drive by the property and look for signs showing that it's actually for rent. Be sure to call the phone number listed at the physical address and verify the owner, as well.

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2. If It Sounds Too Good to Be True, It Probably Is

When scanning through Craigslist listings, be cautious of apartments that seem too good to be true, as they probably are. Often these listings are fake and designed to pull you in with the lure of a "fantastic deal." Also, if a listing sounds terrific, but is chock full of misspellings and bad grammar, proceed with extreme caution as it could be a sign of a fraudulent or fake ad.

Do some research ahead of time to familiarize yourself with the local housing market and the going rents and fees. Do this by scanning local classified ads and utilizing websites like Hotpads and Lovely. Once you do this, you'll be able to easily spot red flags like unusually cheap rent, small security deposits, and lack of tenant screening.

3. Never Give Personal Information Upfront

Another way scammers use Craigslist to try and entice potential victims is by convincing you it's a really hot property, typically via e-mail, and insisting you "act fast" to reserve it. The most typical scam is asking you to submit a rental application before you view the property. This is done in an effort to get your personal information, such as Social Security and bank account numbers.

Avoid this situation by always making sure you view the unit and verify the owner before you fill out a rental application. The only thing that a landlord can legally ask you for prior to showing the place is a valid photo ID.

4. Never Trust an E-mail

Unfortunately, scammers are hacking into the e-mail addresses of landlords and property owners on Craigslist and defrauding prospective tenants by posing as the real owners. The scam typically starts by answering your e-mail inquiry with a hard sell on why they need your personal information (or a deposit) before showing you the place. Because of this, it's always smart to talk to a real person to verify the property. Most scammers don't want to talk to you on the phone and will try to get your money without doing so. If the listing has a phone number, call it, and verify the rental and all the ad details. If all of your phone calls go unanswered, and unreturned, you should move on to the next prospective listing.

5. Never Wire Money

If a landlord or property owner insists on you wiring money to secure a property, it's probably a scam. There is absolutely no solid reasoning to ever pay with a wire transfer. Sending money by wire transfer is essentially the same thing as sending cash and once it has been sent, it's nearly impossible to get it back.

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6. Beware of the Middleman Scam

The "middleman scam" is when a scammer pretends a property is available for rent on Craigslist and claims to be handling, or managing, the place for the "real" owners. They'll often claim the owner is out of the country and has trusted the place to them. This middleman will attempt to collect rent, a security deposit, and various fees and then will quickly disappear with your money. Typically, they'll use photos and property information copied directly from a real estate website and create a completely fake listing on Craigslist. Avoid this scam by insisting on seeing the property first and verifying that the place is actually for rent by talking directly to the landlord or neighbors.

The bottom line is to always trust your gut instinct, especially in terms of the professionalism of the Craigslist listing and the ease (or lack thereof) of reaching the property owner directly. If something about the deal just doesn't seem right, then move on to the next apartment or rental home and avoid the strong potential for a scam. There will always be plenty of legit listings to meet your needs.