Renters Beware!

Submitted by SadInAmerica on Fri, 05/02/2008 - 3:25pm.

Scammers turn their sights on the humble apartment seekers.

Amid the crumbling ruins of the nation's real estate market, San Francisco's rental market appears strangely immune to reality. According to CraigStats, a Web site which crunches information from Craigslist about the San Francisco rental market, median rents per room — which began careening upward around March of last year from $1,400 per bedroom — are currently approaching $1,700.

This is all to say that these are dark days to be looking for an affordable San Francisco apartment without so much as a trust fund or a sugar mommy to call your own. Of course, San Francisco has always been a spendy place to store your mortal coil, but now it seems that the bottom of the market harbors a veritable minefield of tenant traps.

Welcome to the new state of surreal estate. As some housing remains expensive and other properties free-fall into foreclosure, there's a new kind of dirty dealing aimed at unsuspecting tenants. If you are looking for a great deal — a truly affordable studio, a house for $1,500, a three-bedroom SOMA condo for $3,000 and change, renter beware. You are not just a dreamer, but a potential mark.

Jasmine Monte de Ramos, a flight attendant living in Spokane, Wash., had little idea that renting an apartment in San Francisco could be so perilous. "I rent a nice two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in Spokane for $675, and I have high standards," she told me during a stop over. "So this has been really difficult."

When her airline moved her to San Francisco, she found a temporary situation renting a room in a shared apartment. But when the master tenant began entering her room and asking for ever increasing amounts of money, Monte de Ramos decided she needed to find another home. Because she spent only a handful of days out of the month in the city, she wanted to find something that was safe but reasonably priced.

"Anything that was under $950 was pretty bad," she recalls. She visited so-called efficiencies for $895 where tenants shared a bathroom down the hall. In other decades, such units would have been called single room occupancy units, and they represented the housing of last resort for the marginalized folks who depend on public assistance.


But these efficiencies — remodeled with new kitchenettes and hardwood floors — are too expensive for vets living off SSI checks. They are aimed at fully employed professionals who simply cannot afford a one-bedroom for $1,400. CitiApartments is currently listing a number of such efficiencies in a downtown building. When reached by phone, the agent told me the units are very popular because they are "very nice and in beautiful buildings."

Amid the sea of high prices and weird pseudo-apartments (marginally remodeled garages or units without kitchens or bathrooms), a few listings looked promising. One listing — $850 for a nice one-bedroom apartment on Gough Street — caught her eye. The pictures showed a pristine place with wonderful furnishings and lots of natural light.

When she contacted the listing, she received a prompt reply from one Darcy Kewell, who claimed that she needed to rent out her apartment while she was in London, to help cover her rent there. "The only problem is that I'm the only person who has the keys but I hope that we will find a compromise." The formal but stilted language might have tipped off Monte de Ramos that this woman wasn't a Californian living in London, but her tone was reasonably professional. After a series of e-mails back and forth, Kewell explained the process by which she would send the apartment keys upon receiving a rental application and a money transfer for the first month's rent through an agent with European shipping company TNT.

When Monte de Ramos grew suspicious about sending money before seeing the apartment, she inquired about the exact location of the building. Her e-mail bounced back, suggesting the poster of the listing had closed her e-mail account. A day later she recognized a similar ad for an apartment in San Bruno and her boyfriend responded, posing as a renter. He began receiving identical messages from a name other than Darcy Kewell. In the following days, Monte de Ramos saw other ads for a San Francisco apartment with similar wording and too-good-to-be-true pricing from yet another name. She responded via a new e-mail address, under an assumed name. Again, an answer came from an alleged woman (with yet another name) from San Francisco who had ended up in the United Kingdom and needed to rent her condo. At this point Monte de Ramos posted her own Craigslist posting warning other would-be tenants of this scam.

Indeed the details of this particular scam are not new. According to the Web site of TNT, "fraudsters use TNT's identity on Web sites and e-mail messages to mislead Internet shoppers," typically involving a "request for advance wire transfer of money to pay for goods ordered on the Internet, before the goods will be allegedly shipped by TNT." And on a Better Business Bureau chat forum, commenters posted horror stories about falling for similar scams through fraudulent ads on eBay or Craigslist — ads purporting to sell cheap laptops or other electronics that never arrive.

In the past few months in high rent cities, scammers have increasingly targeted those in search of affordable housing. One common bait-and-switch is to use rental listings to lure tenants into signing up for memberships on Internet sites that provide listings of homes going into preforeclosure.

One recent listing offered a gorgeous Mediterranean home in "north San Francisco" with a blue and white tile kitchen deluxe enough for a Home and Garden magazine spread and an oversized sunken jacuzzi tub overlooking a garden, all for a mere $1,500. When I called the number, an agent for Future Orange attempted to get me to sign up for the yearly membership of $199. Once I'd paid, she said, I could call a customer service representative who would find this particular home for me.

What then? The house wasn't really for rent. Nor was it for sale. But Future Orange would provide me with the tools necessary to go and knock on the homeowner's door and attempt to convince them I could take over their mortgage, thereby allowing them to escape foreclosure and skedaddle, while I moved into their luxury home for only $1,500 a month! (Who knows if this house even exists and, if it does, whether the mortgage is $1,500?)

Another common scam is to simply continue taking application fees after an apartment has already been rented. One recent posting on Craigslist describes a tenant applying for a swank, $3,095 per month, three-bedroom in SOMA, then meeting a guy in the street who said he'd already signed a lease to rent the unit.

But the most potentially damaging of such rental cons is the one that almost ensnared Monte de Ramos. Last month Canada's CBC reported on similar shenanigans in another relatively tight rental market. Vancouver has seen such a dramatic rise in con artists posing as landlords on Craigslist that the police have opened an investigation. Echoing Craigslist's own advice on avoiding Internet scammers, the police recommended that would-be tenants make sure to meet the property manager in person at the apartment. The blog suggests that Craigslist con artists sometimes gain access to homes they don't own by renting vacation homes, then posing as a landlord when they give tours in person.

Now Monte de Ramos is considering her options. She could sign a lease on a 200-square-foot studio for $950, or she may continue to live with her family in Spokane, then fly into San Francisco a day before her shift and stay in a hotel. In the end, she says she learned a lesson about the San Francisco housing market that many newcomers find hard to accept. It's not that there aren't decent places to rent, it's that the prices are so outrageously high compared to the rest of the country, it's hard to believe. In this context, the scammers seem to have the only reasonable offers around.

Carl Lloyd - May 2, 2008 - posted at

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Submitted by SadInAmerica on Fri, 05/02/2008 - 3:25pm.