My sister is moving to DC at the end of the summer and sent me a listing she’d found on Craigslist saying “I think this is a scam, but it looks so good–can you check it out?” It looked scammy.
Fortunately, I knew someone in the apartment complex who was able to tell me that the rental price was, indeed, much higher than the one advertised. There were a number of other things which made the ad suspicious, including the fact that it was posted on a website that was just a subdomain of a free hosting service–it looked about as legitimate as something on the now-defunct free Geocities.
I passed the info along to my sister, who was not surprised but asked me how I thought this scam made money. The ad linked to a very simple webpage: a few facts about the apartment, a few photos, and information about applying for the apartment. To apply, you had to fax a copy of your credit score to the number listed. All it asked for was the credit score number and what time you’d be available for an appointment.
This in itself was an immediate red flag–why would they ask you to get the credit score first? Why wouldn’t they do their own check on you? After all, you could easily send them whatever score you chose.
Were they stealing your personal information with a fake credit score site? I checked the site they were recommending for people to check their credit scores and it was one of the usual, legitimate sites. No identity theft there, even a (short) free trial period.
So, being the savvy affiliate marketer that I am (sort of), my next conclusion was that this had to be some sort of affiliate marketing scam. A reverse look-up of the phone number showed that it was not registered to any business and was located in Washington state (I’m open-minded about national property management firms, as I used to work for one, but it was still worrying), and if all they wanted was your credit score, then it couldn’t be an identity-theft scheme. Or if it was identity-theft, it was pre-screening its victims.
Where was I? Ah, yes, affiliate marketing. Here’s a quick rundown on how affiliates work in case you’re not familiar with them. Company A wants people to sign up for some service which either costs money or may yield customer loyalty or whatever. Person B has influence of some kind and wants money. Company A gives person B a special link so that when person B will get a commission every time someone signs up for company A’s service. Person B promotes the link, interested people sign up, person B gets money, company A gets customers, everybody wins.
The link on the “listing” itself was a link to another free webpage (which looked like it was run by the same people and designed by the same person) about the importance of checking your credit score before applying for things, so you know what kind of rate you’ll get, etc. And on that webpage, I hit paydirt. Sure enough, it was an affiliate link, not a direct link.
So this is my assessment of how this scam works:
1) Person finds incredible deal on fantastic apartment in a great area. The listing was eye-catching and, well, too good to be true!
2) Person needs their credit score to fax to get approved. You can check your credit report for free at annualcreditreport.com, but to get your actual credit score, you have to sign up with a paid service. (Credit Karma will estimate it for you, but that’s not the same as knowing the official score is.)
3) Person uses the quickest link at hand, namely the one that leads down the affiliate path.
4) Person signs up for a free trial and scammer gets commission for generating a sale. Person may or may not cancel, obviously the company paying the commission is counting on them maintaining the service after the free trial period has ended.
5) Person faxes their credit score and never hears from the scammer again.
Is this a victimless crime? It might be, if the person cancels the credit score service before the free trial period ends. In many cases, that means the affiliate won’t get paid. Yet many people will forget and others will be confused. And even then, there is time and energy expended on something which doesn’t even exist.
So if you run across a Craigslist posting that seems scammy to you, but you can’t figure out how they’d make money, it may be one of these affiliate scams.
The classic Craigslist scam to watch out for is the cash back scam.