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.


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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Miranda July 15, 2009 at 8:52 am

Thanks for bringing this to my attention! I think that there are a lot of these types of scams out there. It always pays to be on your guard. Kudos to your sister for questioning! And to you for being able to answer!

Miranda’s last blog post: Are You Too Nice to Earn the Big Bucks?

Dad July 15, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Good analysis. I’ve come to reject all free trials. It sometimes gets me grief from a telemarketer (from a company I do business with so Do Not Call Registry doesn’t stop them). But I’ve learned that as careful as I try to be about money, I forget to cancel the free trial before the money starts charging. Since it would go to a credit card, I may not notice very fast (I do, but others don’t) and let it slide into the second or third month and so on. If I don’t think I’m going to keep the service, I don’t get the free trial.

Journey July 16, 2009 at 10:41 am

There are an outrageous amount of Craigslist scams lately. It is making me not want to use the website. Currently, I am apartment hunting and I am experiencing the same things as your sister.

Journey’s last blog post: Why I considered getting a PhD…

lyttleton October 27, 2009 at 11:46 am

This was a helpful post. I actually ran across a similar situation but with a job opportunity. The man has a very basic website (www.homegiants.com) for a real estate agency and he’s looking for an office assistant. After submitting a resume via his site, he contacted me a couple days later, asking for my credit score and sending me a link to the free sites. Now, a legitimate business man should know that the government allows everyone to freely get a credit report once a year and you don’t need to use those sites. So that was my first big clue. I couldn’t figure out how the scam benefited him though so I searched around and I found your blog. Your reasoning makes sense, but since I know my credit score, I submitted the number without doing the credit report sites (really, they’re scams in themselves). Now we’ll see what his next move is.
.-= lyttleton´s last blog ..5 Underrated (or Under-seen) Great Films =-.

Jennifer February 21, 2010 at 9:28 pm

THANK YOU for your post! I received a job offer from them and I thought it was fishy that he didn’t have the “www” in his website address. I’m in the same situation as “lyttleton”

So, thanks for confirming my suspicions. I usually get scam job offers that are from outside the US, and don’t even have a website set-up (and that make you fill out a stupid list of questions)

Pete August 12, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Thanks for your help.
My wife has been out of work for 6mos. and is becoming desprate.
She saw the employment add on craigslist.
Thanks again
Pete

Alan October 13, 2010 at 12:41 am

I fell for this scam as well but was quick to realize it when I googled the phone number in the email and immediately cancelled my account with creditreport.com within the hour and also cancelled my credit card. I am glad to hear that I am not the only one that had to deal with this.

affilate_pro January 24, 2011 at 4:15 am

I am a professional affiliate. Before you guys get bent out of shape don’t forget that affiliate marketing is not a scam. Of course misleading may be more accurate, but not a scam.

Advertising towards people of lack-luster intelligence is not a crime. If you do your diligence you will be fine.

lc January 24, 2011 at 7:33 am

I have a question about this scam as it has sort of happened to me…if you click through the link, but close the site and don’t put any information in, does the affiliate get the commission? I obviously was suspicious, but also curious about the link. I clicked but realized what was going on and left the website. =/

Randall May 18, 2012 at 10:13 am

The home or apartment rental scams are certain to go much further than just an affiliate commission on the credit reports. Most CraigList browsers would be out-of-state people moving to a new area … the NEXT step for the scammers would be to ACCEPT the application from the victim … then ask for a DEPOSIT (probably $500 or more) to be sent to HOLD the property for the victim to arrive in the distant city. Unfortunately, the property as advertised would be non-existent. Clever hoax.

Dan November 15, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Great report and love your writing style! This scheme is very misleading so yes I would call it scam because although affiliate marketing in itself is not a scam – the misleading and underhanded way the perpetrators go about this is a scam, because it is based on knowingly leading someone into a situation that is false, not real.

Kiki March 23, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Can you demand your money back from the site if you went through with it before figuring out it was a scam?

ryan January 11, 2014 at 11:11 pm

I went through this same thing, only it was to apply for a job. Talk about heart breaking. To get this beautiful and encouraging letter about what a great candidate you are for the job then they started in with the same line about getting your credit score because your going to have access to a company credit card.

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