Everything I’m writing here is based on my own experience and, to the best of my knowledge, is true. Throughout this ordeal I’ve had people tell me “life’s lessons are costly,” so I want to share what I have learned with as many people as possible, for free.
In September 2013 I was in desperate need of housing so I replied to an ad for a room on Craigslist. The next evening I went to the apartment to look at the room. The tenant who posted the ad went by Pauline. She told me that there were many people looking at the room, and she can’t save it for me unless she gets a deposit. As I left, she told me to “take your time” to decide if I wanted to rent it. Two days later I returned to sign the rental contract with her, and paid her a $600 deposit. The move in date was Nov. 1. She didn’t have a key for me because the current tenant had it.
A couple weeks later she tells me that I can’t move in because her current tenant won’t leave and there’s nothing she can do about it. She said she will return my deposit by sending me a check. A week goes by and I don’t get anything, so I ask her about it. Over the next few weeks she keeps giving me excuses, such as she doesn’t have any checks so she’ll need to go to the bank first, or that she has to first wait for another check to clear. I offered to let her pay me via PayPal, and in installments, but she tells me she has no money.
After three months of waiting, I finally sued her in small claims court. She did not show up at the hearing so I won. However, she has not done any of the required actions after the judgment. She ignored it entirely. I don’t have her email address since she used the Craigslist email, so I mailed her a letter asking for my money back. I got no response. At this point, there’s nothing I can do that won’t cost me more money. I just want to put this all behind me.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with small claims, the court does not assist with collections. Winning the judgment is one thing, but getting your money is another. While it’s true that you can make the judgment debtor pay the costs incurred during collection, that requires filing another form, which needs to be delivered or mailed to the judgment debtor by a registered process server, and a separate collection attempt, which will cost more money. Even though $600 is significant to me, the amount of money required to possibly get part of it back is not cost effective. There are additional details that I have left out to make this account shorter.
If you are tempted to give advice on how I can try to get my money back, please refrain from doing so unless you have personally successfully collected from an individual (not a business) who was a complete stranger, unemployed, and uncooperative.
While there are many articles on how to avoid online rent scams, such as this one, this one, and this one, and I was aware of those red flags during my search, none of them went into the details that would have prevented me from losing my money in this case. This is why I am sharing what I learned.
1) If you can help it, don’t sublet. Rent though an actual management company that requires all the paperwork and background checks. Unfortunately, sometimes we are poor or want to save money, or don’t meet the income requirements. Then what?
If you can only afford to rent a room, avoid apartments. The tenant most likely does not have permission from the landlord to sublet. If they claim that it’s okay (as that woman did when I asked her), don’t just take their word for it. Check with the landlord first! If it is illegal, you could be evicted. Instead, renting a room from the owner of a house is a safer option. First verify that they are indeed the owner. One way this can be done through the county tax assessor. (Plus, if you ever have to sue the owner in small claims court, and you win, you can put a lien on her real estate if she refuses to pay you.)
2) Choose a room that is already vacant. After this incident, I only respond to ads for rooms that are available immediately, and the room is already vacated when I go to view it. When subletting from an individual, it’s risky to hand your deposit over for a room that is available on a future date and still has someone living in it. There is no way of knowing if the person will actually move out. It’s possible that he or she has no intention of actually leaving. (See Rachael Marie Smith rent scam.) This might not be an issue if you’re renting from a legitimate landlord or management company. However, scammers are known to break in to occupied apartments and fraudulently collect people’s deposits for an apartment that really isn’t for rent.
3) Do a background check on your landlord. If you’re really serious about renting, get the person’s legal name (first and last) before you hand over money, and find out what you can about her. (Unfortunately, I only knew her as Pauline until I wrote the check to her; her actual first name is Baolien.) Ask how long she’s been living here, and how her experience has been. You might even want to ask where she lived before, under the guise of small talk, if she hasn’t lived in this county for long.
Although the site checkyourlandlord.com exists, there might not be information on the individual you’re subletting from. You can still do a Google search of the person’s name and see what turns up. Also, there are public records that you can easily access for free online. While you won’t be able to see the actual document unless you go to the courthouse or recorder’s office or pay a fee to request it, you can see on the website that there was a record. Make sure to check Small Claims Court records. Has she been sued before? If so, that’s not a good sign! You can also check for records from the County Clerk-Recorder to see if there are any liens on that person’s property. If that individual appears as a grantor, it means she owes or has owed money!* Those are red flags to not trust this person with your money.
Keep in mind, having no records turn up isn’t a guarantee that she has never ripped someone off or doesn’t have the potential to. It’s possible that there are records in another county. I know people who won’t bother with Small Claims court for amounts under $2,000, so it’s possible that the person has been stealing money from people but no one has taken action against her. However, I found records for the woman who stole my money, so had I known this before, I would not have tried to rent from her.
Other things you can do to screen your landlord are listed here.
4) Avoid subletting from people who are unemployed, especially if they sound desperate for money. Pauline deposited my check the very next day, so I didn’t have the option to get the bank to stop payment. If you win a judgment against an unemployed person and she won’t pay you, you can’t even garnish her wages because she has none.
5) Make sure you get the keys when you hand over your deposit, and check that they work. Then again, it’s possible to have gotten working keys for an apartment that you can’t actually rent, as mentioned in this story.
6) When I posted this same list on a subreddit, someone mentioned having positive experiences using DepositGuard, a service that keeps your deposit in a neutral account until you move in. I have not tried it before, so I can’t vouch for it, but I would give it a try if the situation ever arises. If you have used DepositGuard before, please share your experience in a comment below.
Edit: A friend wondered what might have happened had I dated the check with the move-in date. Therefore, it couldn’t be deposited or cashed until after I moved in, and I would have had time to stop the payment. However, from what I’ve read, stopping a payment only puts it on hold for six months, after which you’ll need to pay another fee to stop it for another six months. Still, it’s possible that she would have returned my check if the money wasn’t already in her possession.
7) If you suspect you’re a victim of an Internet/rent scam, make sure to report it to the IC3, FTC, and local authorities. I do not know for certain whether Pauline is a scammer or simply a deadbeat, but she did say that she couldn’t work because she was sick, which is a common scam line. Instead, she was taking classes at a community college (with her grown son) because she wanted to start her own business. I spent nearly two hours talking with her about the use and cleaning of the shared areas, so it seemed legitimate, but I figure that getting $600 for just talking with someone about your apartment for two hours is an easy way to make money. Did Baolien Dang steal your security deposit, too? Leave a comment below if you’re also a victim.
I hope that this information will reach as many people as possible and will prevent you or your loved ones from going through what I did. Looking for housing can be very stressful, but it’s important to not rush to a decision out of desperation. I was able to find a much nicer room not long after, so I’ve learned to not settle for a place that I’m not completely satisfied with. I acknowledge that more often than not you probably could successfully find housing without taking these precautions, but after getting burned, I’d rather be safe than sorry.
*In general, the grantor owes money to the grantee, but if the debt has been paid, the grantee becomes the grantor and releases the lien. So if you find someone is a grantor who is releasing the lien, that means this grantor (formerly grantee) has gotten paid.