If you’re like CHS, you can’t help but sneak a peek at open laptops at the coffee shop on your way to a third refill. If you’re walking by someone on Capitol Hill where the rental market continues to be turbulent, there’s a good chance they have at least one tab open to Seattle’s Craigslist apartment page. It should come as no surprise then that scammers are trying to exploit the endless frantic search for ideal, affordable Capitol Hill listings.
CHS was tipped to one scam apparently hot again this summer where an apartment manager found her Craigslist apartment posting was being re-listed on the real estate site Hotpads.com. The posting used the same language and pictures, but listed the apartment for $500 cheaper.
When she emailed the HotPads poster posing as an interested renter, she received a lengthy and friendly email from someone claiming to be a graphic designer living in England. Not surprising, the scammer said she would use a wire service to close the deal. CHS got the same email when we sent a query, but despite our best efforts, could not get lured any further into the scam. The reply also included a 306-area code number tied to a Pinger account — a free VoIP service similar to Skype. The number was active, but would not accept calls.
HotPads did not return a CHS request for comment on their anti-scamming efforts, although they write about how to spot a scam here. In 2011 cloud communications company Twilio posted this interview with a senior software engineer at HotPads on how the company tries to prevent fraud through an automated telephone verification.
When people create housing ads on HotPads, they have the option to pay for extra promotion. Unfortunately, fraudsters love to try to get extra eyeballs on their ads as well, which they try to accomplish by paying to promote their listings, usually with stolen credit cards …
Wading through all our transactions by hand is obviously cumbersome and time-consuming, usually involving a call to the user-provided phone number associated with each potentially fraudulent listing … We decided to automate this process to verify phone numbers before processing credit card transactions. To verify that a user owns a phone number, we dial the number through Twilio and read out a series of digits which are stored in our server and are only valid for that single phone call.
To HotPad’s credit, the fraudulent listing did have a large notification that the apartment was well below market value. Of course similar scams can be found on Craigslist. Occasionally good Samaritans post scam warnings to let others know what they probably knew anyway: it was too good to be true.