How I Almost Fell Into a Craigslist San Francisco Apartment Scam

A Craigslist post for a one bedroom apartment in a prime Mission location for $1500/mo sounded too good to be true. But there was a phone number on the list, so at 9am on a Sunday morning in late September, I made a call.

A human named Lewis replied and asked me how fast I could do this. I literally jumped out of bed and within 30 minutes I was waiting in the rain on the sidewalk of Treat Avenue. Lewis wasn’t there, so I unlocked the fence and walked to the back of a hidden two-story apartment complex. Through a window, I saw Unit A was empty except for a bottle of hand sanitizer on the kitchen counter. I texted Lewis again, ready to move into my new home.

This was just one of many rabbit holes I have delved into in my quest to find a new San Francisco apartment. I experienced the same thing song and dance in 2020, finally getting a tip from a friend on a rare rent-controlled Edwardian on Haight Street. But two years later, the master tenant I got married, then filed for divorce as a roommate, which sent me back into the ever-changing hellscape of Craigslist apartment scams.

Rental scams in San Francisco are on the rise

According to data from the FBI Crime Complaint Center, this housing hell is only getting hotter. In 2021, 11,578 people reported being victims of real estate fraud, to the tune of $350,328,166, which the agency says is (loosely) a 64% increase. Apartment guide analyzed data from the Better Business Bureau from 2015 to 2021 and found that San Francisco had the third highest number of scams per capita, behind LA and Boise (SF expats be warned).

When I contacted Mason Wilder of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (which would be a great name for a fake organization), he told me that there were no new scam methods on his radar. since my last story. But perhaps due to broadening my search beyond roommate situations to bedrooms (painted fingernail emoji), I found an exciting variety of new-to-me scammers willing to take my down payment, before celebrating spooky season in ghost me.

Based on my unscientific two-month study of Craigslist email alerts, it’s nearly impossible to find a real bedroom in San Francisco under $2000 anywhere beyond SoMa, the TL or ‘Lower Nob Hill’ which is another way real estate agents pronounce the word Tenderloin. Those neighborhoods have their charms, but they are not places where I would like to walk a Shih Tzu twice a day. Outer Sunset and Outer Richmond are the other bastions of affordability, where I found a few “$1900 junior rooms,” a term that sounds particularly patronizing for a 38-year-old professional who can barely afford it. However, despite a luxurious bonus wall, these second-name apartments often lack “amenities” like an oven or stove (“kitchenette” is realtor parlance for “BYO hot plate”).

An affordable apartment in San Francisco is not easy to find.

Alexandre Spatari/Getty Images

The quest for the unusual deal

During my 2020 housing quest, I mostly contacted ridiculous fake advertisements from fake master tenants offering fake $450 rooms, but this time around I didn’t care about impossible deals, I was instead looking for places that were plausibly below market price – $1,600 one-bedroom apartments in Glen Park, cramped condos in Diamond Heights for $1,400 or that hidden $1,500 apartment on Treat Avenue. These are often flagged for removal within hours, but not before suckers like me send polite emails asking if dogs are allowed.

Although most of the landlords I contacted lacked a basic understanding of spelling and grammar, to their credit they were incredibly respectful of the privacy of their current tenants – so much so that their leases prohibited showing the apartments while they were occupied. So, I would have to send an application fee for a credit check, along with a deposit and the first month’s rent, before I could see the apartment.

I had experienced this red flag before, but these typo-suffering owners had a new trick up their sleeve. To allay my fears, they sent me their LinkedIn profile, along with jpgs of several pieces of ID – ranging from a driver’s license to a veteran’s ID – proving that in addition to location, identity theft is still alive and well.

I have also noticed that the quality of fake roommate ads is increasing. A notable listing for an $850 room – titled “Bright NOPA Room in a 4BR!!” – particularly stood out. Although it’s an obscene affair, it’s not far off the 2006 rent charged by my current main tenant. I would live with three women in their late twenties to early thirties who “love to cook and eat together (at the kitchen table on our farm!)” and “of course they are incredibly successful and wonderful at all points of view”.

Texting with scammers

After emailing these four lovely ladies my spiel about respecting quiet hours and my fetish for wiping down counters, I received a quick text simply saying “Hello Dan Gentile,” to which I replied, ” new phone that say.” Then come three more messages:

“Hello, I’m owner Kisha Wallace. You like my Craigslist property.

“Hello, I’m owner Kisha Wallace. You like my Craigslist property.

“Do you want to rent a room?”

She asked if I had any pets and said “I don’t mind”. Then she wanted to know if I had a criminal history, and I said no. Then she told me I only need a 350+ credit score, but (here it is) I should submit a credit score report and do I want the link?

Reader, I didn’t want the link. I’d do anything not to get the link, so I asked Kisha if I could submit a criminal record instead, which I’d be happy to get for such a good deal. She said okay, but I still had to click the link. I asked him to fax me the link instead, along with a list of crimes I should commit. The last message I got from her was “sorry no”. Turns out I would never eat at the farm table alongside these wonderful, successful women.

San Francisco apartment buildings with bay windows and fire escapes.

San Francisco apartment buildings with bay windows and fire escapes.

Joe_Potato/Getty Images/iStockphoto

About this one bedroom apartment in the Mission

Kisha was just one of many scammers who dragged me in, but our old friend Lewis was the only one I spoke to on the phone. The dream of below-market rent brought me to Treat Avenue that day, but I found no potential landlords there.

I called Lewis back and asked him a few questions. Did he live in town? Yes. Which neighborhood ? He replied “the east side”, like a real human from San Francisco. Then he texted me with a Rently link which he said would provide a lock code. In a moment of reckless desperation, I clicked on the link, which listed the rent as a much more realistic amount of $2,600. Lewis explained that the room was reduced due to COVID-19, and I explained that he was a bit late, but ok. Then a popup showed the real owner’s phone number and warned me that if I contacted anyone else I was being scammed.

I read the prompt aloud and mild-mannered Lewis became frantic. He wasn’t trying to rip me off, he asserted. I didn’t have to worry, the apartment belonged to him—James is the owner of the apartment—and I can trust him. I then reminded him that an hour ago his name was Lewis. Quick on his feet, my potential owner clarified his name was…Lewis James. I hung up, standing in the rain outside an apartment that would never be mine.

After almost two months of this rinse and repeat pattern of imposters, I should know better. Maybe it’s just naivety, a cheap streak, or I’ve been lucky in a stupid apartment in the past, but I believe deals still exist in the city. Until the day I sent in my deposit for an in-law in the basement that only scores 2.5 on the 10 point dungeon scale, I always emailed to Kisha to try and get this unusual deal done.

As for my friend Lewis James, it seems he hadn’t had much luck finding a tenant. A month after our first exchange, I texted her to check out the Treat Avenue apartment. He quickly replied that he was always available. I’m happy to share his phone number with anyone interested – all I demand in return is a quick credit check and a list of crimes you’re willing to commit.

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