Craigslist used to be the only place to find an apartment.  Back in the day — 5 or 10 years ago — virtually every apartment or home for rent was on Craigslist, and as kludgy as it was, everything was there, so you were too.  

Now, that’s no longer the case.  Apartment search on Craigslist has become a minefield of fraud and duplicity, real rental listings are now few and far between, and as we talk to renters and property managers across the country, few are using Craigslist anymore.

How on earth did that happen?  We think there’s a few “original sins” that caused Craigslist’s downfall:

  1. Anonymity – Both renters and landlords are completely anonymous on Craigslist, so neither has any idea who they’re dealing with.
  2. Large, urgent transactions – There is a lot of money changing hands between strangers in a rental transaction, and there’s often real urgency around the deal.
  3. Lots of work – It is labor-intensive to make Craigslist an effective marketing tool

Here at Dwellsy, as you might imagine, we have more than a passing interest in understanding what happened.  As the only completely free apartment and rental home listing site since Craigslist’s heyday, we want to make sure that we don’t meet the same fate.

So, let’s dig into these three.

Anonymity = Risk

This is one of the cornerstones of the “old internet,” before Facebook changed everything.  Used to be that on the Internet, you could be anyone you wanted to be – anonymity ruled.  

Unfortunately, that gave rise to a lot of bad behavior, and one of Facebook’s original innovations that caused billions of people to use it was the fact that it insisted on real names.  By interacting with real people, you could trust others to be accountable for their actions — and be held accountable for your own.

Craigslist is the original Web 1.0 company, and it still, to this day, continues to be a completely anonymous platform, while the world around it has changed.  

If you’re a fraudster in the world of real names, Craigslist has become an oasis – a place where no one knows who you are and you can act with impunity.

Big Dollars and Real Urgency

Like everyone else, fraudsters go where the biggest opportunities are.  And, rent fraud is a big opportunity.

For most of us, rent is the biggest expense each month, and putting down first, last and security deposit is often the biggest check that renters ever cut – thousands of dollars in many cases.  

Add to that the fact that there is urgency around securing your new place (“put your deposit down now, it might be gone tomorrow!”) and lots of renters are forced to throw caution to the wind and trust someone that they might not ordinarily trust.  

Combine lots of money changing hands, real urgency, a heightened need to take a risk and an anonymous platform and what do you get?  Fraud paradise!

Craigslist is Tons of Work

If you’re a property manager or leasing agent, you’re very, very busy.  You have maintenance issues to deal with, package deliveries to manage, vendors constantly coming and going, residents with questions, events to plan – and empty homes/apartments to rent.  

Craigslist was initially welcomed as a “free” option for listings, and it did drive costs down in comparison to the old newspaper classified ads.  But, as the understanding of how to use the platform matured, professional property managers realized that in order to effectively use the tool, you had to post many, many times a day.  Most view the optimal posting strategy as 3x per day for each property – that’s 21 times per week.  And, because Craigslist doesn’t like similar ads, those ads all need to be different.

Coming up with three unique and compelling ads for the same listing every day, seven days a week is a challenging and time-consuming task and one that few property managers or leasing agents relished.  

But you know who is good at posting and posting and posting?  And who is not constrained by social norms and ethical boundaries?  And, who gets to keep all of any money they make instead of just getting paid a salary?  Fraudsters!  

So…?

Start with an influx of fraudsters operating anonymously on a platform where individuals are exchanging thousands of dollars.  Add a heavy dose of busy property management professionals who are not looking for labor-intensive things to do and what do you get?

  1. Renters see experience levels of fraud and get scared about using the platform.
  2. Property Managers see fewer renters responding to their listings (and more potentially fraudulent inquiries) and choose to post fewer listings.
  3. The fraudsters, seeing success, post even more, drowning out any remaining legit listings.

It sounds awful, but that’s what we think happened.  

What’s a renter to do?

First, if you’re still thinking about using Craigslist for your search, BE CAREFUL, and remember that the odds that you’re looking at a fraudulent listing are very high.

Second, look at reputable listings sites – there are many that do a much better job of triaging listings.  Some, like Apartments.com or Apartment List, use a paywall technique by charging property managers for listings.  Others, like Dwellsy.com, do a ton of work to keep the fraudsters off the platform without implementing a paywall.  

Third, where possible, make sure you talk to a real representative from the property.  It’s difficult to tour a property in person these days with shelter-in-place rules and social distancing, but you can still have them do a live video tour on their cell phone.  And, if there’s any weirdness at all in the interaction – if they have excuses as to why they can’t show you the place – just move on.  It’s too big a risk to take.  

Good luck out there. 

There are plenty of amazing places to rent…but it takes some work to find the right one for you. Here is a great article to get you started.