The darling three-bedroom house in an upscale Oakdale neighborhood looked perfect for Angela Kilgore's family, and the $700 monthly rent was surprisingly affordable.
The online photos showed a well-kept home inside and out and the ad's description was detailed and accurate, including the address.
The Craigslist post only listed the landlord's e-mail address, so Kilgore quickly replied to express her interest and to confirm that the $700 price was not a misprint.
The home's owner responded and assured her the house could be had for that bargain price. All she had to do was answer a few questions via e-mail, and he would let her know if she was approved.
The landlord claimed he was in Malaysia at the time, so he couldn't take her through the home. But he promised to send her the keys. He even provided his phone number so they could talk.
Something smelled fishy to Kilgore, who's wary of too-good-to-be-true deals.
"I guess my parents taught me well," said Kilgore, who was using Craigslist to shop for an Oakdale rental home.
As she suspected, the online ad was a scam. The guy posing as the owner has no connection to the house, and the legitimate owners had no idea their rental home was being used in a hoax.
Such rental fraud is rampant on Craigslist, the largest classified ad site on the Internet. Unlike in some big cities, the site does not charge to post rentals ads in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
Anyone with an e-mail address can fake rental postings on the company's Modesto, Merced and Stockton sites, and apparently many do.
After hearing about the fraudulent post Kilgore encountered, The Bee reviewed the homes for rent listings on Modesto's Craigslist. The Bee uncovered numerous phoney ad for houses in Modesto, Ceres, Patterson, Turlock, Oakdale and elsewhere.
Uncovering a hoax
Kilgore was smart enough not to send the scammer any personal information, but The Bee decided to play along with the hoax by submitting a fake rental application just to see what would happen.
The application was accepted and the "landlord" even called to share the good news.
"I am so much happy (sic) to have you as my tenant," the guy, who called himself Eric, told The Bee's reporter, who pretended to be named Judy. "You such wonderful person (sic). I send you the keys and documents right now."
Even though it was late afternoon in Modesto and Eric claimed to be calling from Malaysia, he promised a FedEx package with the Oakdale home's keys would arrive by 9 the next morning.
The only thing Judy had to do was wire him a $600 security deposit via Western Union.
"Everything in the house is very good. And water and TV (cable) service and everything is included," Eric assured. "You just need to maintain it for me."
To see how far Eric would go, Judy told him how her three big mean dogs would be living in the house with her. Would that be OK?
Yep. No problem. Just wire the money.
Do people really fall for scams like this, The Bee's reporter asked Eric. After Judy explained who she really was, the scammer quickly hung up.
Return calls to his phone number (which used a South Dakota area code) reached only a magicJack recording saying that customer wasn't available.
MagicJack is a phone service that enables people around the globe to make free international calls using what appears to be an American phone number.
So Eric may really have been in Malaysia, but it's possible he doesn't even know where Oakdale is located.
Fake ads look very real
Another fake landlord who exchanged e-mails with The Bee claimed to be a reverend currently in West Africa participating in "an international Christian follower's crusade." That hoax involved a home on Morning Glory Drive in Patterson.
Jason Alves of Countryside Property Management in Ceres is the actual person managing that Patterson rental, and he confirmed the reverend's post was a fraud.
"This happens all the time," Alves said. "It's terrible for everyone involved."
Alves said the fake online ads look real because they include photos and descriptions copied from real ads.
"It's really hard for tenants to distinguish who the real owner is," Alves said. "But if you're not dealing with someone you can meet face-to-face, that's a huge red flag."
Another bogus posting was for a Modesto home on Pelton Avenue. James Johnson of Stockton's Provenance Real Estate Group is the actual manager of that property.
"Ask a lot of questions and use common sense," Johnson advised. "When it's a legitimate ad, there's usually lots of ways listed to contact the landlord, including a phone number. ... If not much information is given, you can pretty much assume it's a scam."
The fake ads The Bee spotted listed only the supposed property owner's Yahoo e-mail address.
Several of the fake ads used e-mail addresses that included names similar to those of the property's actual owner or that of a former tenant.
That was the case with Dan Day's home. Day, a former Bee employee, has his Modesto house for sale, but a fraudulent Craigslist rental ad was posted for the property.
"They took the photos from our sales listing, so it looked legitimate," Day said. He said it was upsetting to see the scammer had created an e-mail account using the name of one of his family members. "It's really just insidious what they do."
Craigslist and Western Union are well aware of this sort of rental property scam.
Craigslist posts warnings atop every rental listing, cautioning tenants to beware of deals involving wire transfers. It also warns against renting from anyone "who is out of the country or cannot meet you in person."
Western Union's consumer fraud division also cautions against transferring funds to out-of-town landlords even for "legitimate-sounding reasons."
The Central California Better Business Bureau last week issued an alert warning consumers to beware of fraudulent rental ads on Craigslist.
"It's hard to believe there are such sick people out there who would do something like this to good honest people," Kilgore said. "I just hope no one falls for it."
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2196.