Tips & Advice

How I almost fell for an online rental scam

Emma McGowan 3 May 2022

I was the perfect target because I was more likely to ignore concerns in hopes of finding cheap rent in New York City. 

In April 2011, I’d just turned 24 and was looking for a new spot to live in Brooklyn. I’d been sharing a two-bedroom apartment with a friend of a friend, paying reduced rent for the tradeoff of walking his dog when he worked long shifts as a nurse at a nearby hospital. I was a social worker and my bedroom was so small that my dad came down from Vermont to help me build a loft for my bed, creating a tiny “closet” space underneath. 

But my roommate’s girlfriend moved in after they’d been dating for only a couple of months and it quickly became clear that she and I were not a good fit. The situation came to a head when my (previously great) roommate sent me an aggressive text accusing me of being disrespectful of him and his new squeeze — and giving me a deadline to move out. I didn’t really have the cash to pay market rate in Brooklyn (hence the teeny bedroom and the dog sitting trade) so I started hitting Craigslist, hoping to find something that met my budget. 

When I spotted a one-bedroom garden level apartment in my neighborhood for only $500, I responded immediately. It was a few hundred under what I would expect for that area and size, but I figured maybe there was something weird about it. And I wasn’t choosy: I was already sleeping in a lofted bed as an adult and regularly walking a poorly trained pup who seemed to have built-in radar for the chicken bones that were regularly discarded in the streets around our apartment. 

I sent over some clarifying questions and got a response about six hours later. The respondent was “Pastor Robert Butler” and his email was… weird. Here’s what it said: 

“Thanks for your email and interest in my apartment.
I am Pastor Robert Butler and I own the Property listed on Craiglist
pls email my wife for more informations and tell her the location of
the apartment you contacted me about so she can email you the address
and informations, The apartment is still available for rent one month
rent required for move in and security and damages deposit . It comes
loaded with amenities: Furnished Living room and Bedroom, Leather
furnitires and a walk-in closet, a balcony or patio, ceiling fans, gas
stove, garbage disposal,and central air conditioning and heating, I
bathroom and Toilet, Fully equipped kitchen. Easy access and
transportation options are numerous. The rent fee includes utility
bills (electricity,water,etc) so you dont have to worry about that.
This apartment is available for short or long term rental. I used to
reside in the apartment with my wife, Donna Butler, but due to the
fact that I was transferred to Mobile,Alabama,USA on a Consignment
which is going to be for years, and now reside here for the time
being, We have decided to put our apartment for rent to someone neat,
honest and trustworthy. I will be here in Mobile,Alabama,USA, for a
while and very busy with construction. So I will like you to get in
touch with my wife in Mobile,Alabama,USA via email (
hartrichy@gmail.com) for more details and pictures . Upon
confirmation of your interest, You will be given a rent application
form by my wife, after you have filled the rent application form and
made payment for a month's rent and refundable deposit and damage
fees, the keys and documents will be sent to you through DHL. The
application form is subject to approval. I want you to note that I am
a kind and honest man and also I spent a lot on my property so if
eventually we give you our apartment, I will solicit for your absolute
maintenance of this apartment and want you to treat it as your own.I
want to know if I can trust you to handle my property with care.
Please note that we don't have anyone over there to show you the
apartment, So we will have to send you the keys & Documents via DHL
Courier Service on a next day delivery after you have made payment for
the first month's payment and security deposit so you can move in
asap. If you are ok with this and you are ready to proceed, please
e-mail my wife Donna Butler at ( hartrichy@gmail.com ) tell her the
location of the apartment you contacted me about and request for the
application form .”

I’ll fully admit: I still considered moving forward. But there were enough red flags waving in my face that even the prospect of cheap rent couldn’t quite sway me. I talked to a couple of people, realized pretty quickly it was a scam, and let the “pastor” know in no uncertain terms what I thought of him.

Signs of a rental scam

When this happened to me, over a decade ago, there wasn’t as much easily accessible information about scams like this online. But, unfortunately, these scams are still happening today. Here are some tell-tale signs that the ad you’re looking at online is a rental scam. 

The grammar is way off. 

One big giant red flag is grammar and punctuation that is way off — and I’m not talking about the occasional slip or run-on sentence here. Take a look at the “Pastor’s” response above. It has weird punctuation, really odd word choices, messed up spacing, and odd capitalizations. He also refers multiple times to “Mobile,Alabama,USA,” which is not how anyone who actually lived in “Mobile,Alabama,USA” would refer to it. 

All of these mistakes are a sign that the person writing the email likely doesn’t speak English as a primary language. Many scam centers are based outside of the US, so they might even be running their script through a translator app, which garbles it up in weird ways.

They won’t talk on the phone.

Insisting on only communicating via text or email — and never on the phone or via video chat — is another sign that they might be scammin.’ If the person doesn’t speak English fluently or has an accent that you could easily identify as not matching the persona they’re presenting, they’re not going to want you to be able to hear their voice. 

The names and emails don’t match up.

“Pastor Robert Butler’s” email address was “elenacosby@gmail.com." His “wife,” “Donna Butler,” had the email address “hartrichy@gmail.com.” And while, sure, some people’s email addresses don’t match their names (especially 10 years ago), that level of address/name mismatch is just lazy. Gmail addresses are free. Do better!


Further reading: How to spot email scams


They won’t let you see the apartment in person. 

No legitimate landlord will insist on you sending a deposit without seeing the apartment first. They might try to claim that they can’t show it because there are tenants currently living there, but that’s not a legitimate reason — it’s part of most leases that owners have access to a property in order to show it to potential tenants.

They want you to send a deposit without meeting IRL.

You shouldn’t send a deposit without meeting in person first, but not all landlords are able to meet in person. For example, my current landlord lives out of state and I’ve never met him face-to-face. But he does have a realtor that he works with in my city. That realtor met with my partner and I to show the apartment, give us the lease, and make all of the arrangements. 

Any legit landlord should have no problem with you meeting someone who represents them, in person, in order to confirm that everything is in order. For extra assurance, meet the representative at the actual apartment so that you know they are who they say they are and have access to the property.

The price is almost too good to be true. 

Scammers prey on people with less money because they have fewer options. Look at my situation 10 years ago: I was making $27,000 a year, before taxes, and trying to live in New York City. I was getting kicked out of my apartment and I had to find somewhere new ASAP. I was the perfect target, because I was more likely to ignore concerns about things looking sketchy in hopes of finding that holy grail of cheap rent in New York City. 

Luckily, I wasn’t dire-straits-desperate and was able to take some time to think about the offer before agreeing to anything. But other people aren’t so lucky, which makes scams like this particularly egregious. 

Ultimately, the best rule for not getting hooked by a rental scam is the same as it is for not falling for other online scams. Listen to your spidey-sense: If it smells fishy, it’s probably a fish. And, in this case, it’s a catfish.