Tandon Investigates Fraudulent Housing Listings on Craigslist
March 7, 2016
A research team at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering recently performed a study that investigated Craigslist’s failure to identify and remove up to half of its entries in a timely manner. According to the team’s research paper, 29,000 out of two million listings on the site are actually scams.
The study, conducted by Damon McCory, an assistant professor at the Tandon School of Engineering; Elaine Shi, an associate professor at Cornell University; and Youngsam Park, a PhD student at the University of Maryland, aimed to quantify the rental scam issue and also analyze the various types of scams on Craigslist.
“The study empirically measures rental scams on Craigslist and the main finding is that there is a diverse range of scams targeting apartment hunters,” McCoy said. “These include credit report scams, cloned listings from other rental sites with the price reduced and bait-and-switch listings that request a subscription to see the listing and other listings of properties.”
Before developing an automated methodology to examine comparable scam advertisements, McCoy’s team began by studying anecdotal stories of Craigslist’s scams. They also began their clonal advertisements research by identifying excessively cheap advertisements directly copied from various rental sites.
The team found that though many scam advertisements like “clones” are eventually removed off Craigslist, it takes hours before they are even identified. The clonal scam advertisements, for instance, have been listed for more than 10 hours on average before they are deleted.
“Craigslist could use our methods to detect and remove all of the scam listings that we detected,” McCoy said. “Our hope is that Craigslist and other regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, can use the results of our study to protect people looking for rental properties online.”
Although many students at NYU opt for on-campus housing, CAS freshman Janice Lu said she decided to browse through Craigslist’s extensive off-campus housing listings, hoping to find some legitimate advertisements.
“The fact that Craigslist is having issues detecting fraudulent listings definitely makes me think twice about trusting the site to determine my housing,” Lu said. “It’s obviously not worth a potentially better price if it’s not even valid to begin with. At that point, I’d rather just stick with on-campus housing for convenience, quality and validity.”
Other NYU students, such as CAS junior Andrea Ng, are suspicious of even using Craigslist to look for off-campus housing options.
“I bought a desk, a bookshelf and a dresser off Craigslist, and honestly didn’t take any special precautions to check that any of the listings were legit,” Ng said. “I personally wouldn’t want to use Craigslist for housing to begin with. But I hope that Craigslist can post warnings of listings that look like scams or post advice on how to ensure a legitimate transaction.”
While the study does propose innovative solutions to detect such scam advertisements, the researchers still think students looking for off-campus housing online should be careful.
“Most of these scams advertise apartments well below market value,” McCoy said. “I would advise housing seekers that find online apartment listings that are far below market value to be skeptical and proceed with caution, since it is likely a scam.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 7 print edition. Email Momachi Pabrai at [email protected]