File this under too good to be true: One bedroom condo in Walnut Creek a short distance from the city's tony downtown; water, Internet and garbage included; pets OK; $850 a month.

As if the housing crisis wasn't plagued with enough fraud already, a new bunch of scammers is advertising homes for rent that they don't own and probably have never even seen.

The homes are often foreclosed and empty, or are for sale. The advertised rent is rock bottom, and the would-be renter must send a deposit to get the keys. The scam has become more frequent as unemployment and foreclosures have flooded the rental market with people desperate for something they can afford.

Legal secretary Sherry Davis said she regularly encounters these scams on Craigslist and other online classified ad sites. She's trying to find a place to rent, after losing her Walnut Creek condo to foreclosure following a hospitalization and loss of a job.

"It's rampant," Davis said. "The bottom line is if they can't show you the inside of the property, be very wary."

The Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office has received complaints, some from people who have made the deposit, moved in and paid rent, only to find out later they've been victimized.

"With so many foreclosures on the market, we have had complaints of people lying and saying they have the right to rent the property, and they don't," said Paul Colin, a deputy district attorney. "We've heard of situations where people have moved in."

Prosecuting is not easy. "If someone reports a crime and can't tell you anything about who ripped them off, then it's very difficult for us to pursue the culprit," he said.

Steve Mun, of Keller Williams Realty in San Jose, said he's had homes listed for sale offered as rentals by online scammers.

"They take my listing, flip it around, advertise it as a rental. People are told to wire money to an overseas account," Mun said. Monday, the Web page of one of his listings, a home offered for $760,000 on Alisal Avenue in San Jose, was copied and listed by scammers as a rental for $3,000 a month.

"Usually, the common thread is, I'm the owner, I'm out of the country for some reason, and that is why I can't come and meet you. If you're interested, here's my bank account, for the deposit," Mun said

It has become such a problem that Mun has blogged about it several times. Mostly, people aren't taken in, he said, especially if they go by the home and see a "for sale" sign on the lawn.

Mun said one scammer told a would-be renter they couldn't go in the house but only look inside through the window.

In her search for an apartment, Davis -- who from 1993-99 was the public address announcer for the San Francisco Giants games -- said she's found more phony listings than real ones. That includes a $900-a-month apartment on Lombard Street in San Francisco; a three bedroom home for $900 a month; and incredible deals offered by "missionaries" who are out of the country.

"They have the keys with them, don't have a property manager who can show you the home, but they're looking for good people. One went so far as to use the term 'God fearing.' That really got me."

To get the key, she said, "you send them the deposit."

Friday, she responded to an ad for a Walnut Creek condo for rent for $850 a month. The reply came quickly:

"I'll rent it to whoever puts down the deposit," said the alleged landlord. ''Rent includes water and garbage. My company sent me overseas and will probably be between Africa, India and the UK for another year or so. ... I don't have anyone available to show the place but I can send you pictures of the inside but will have to ship you the keys and papers."

A quick Internet search revealed that the condo is indeed for rent -- for $1,200 through a professional property management company in Walnut Creek. No pets.

Margaret Brown, of Premium Properties in Walnut Creek, said she's had about 15 listings pirated this year. "It happens to our other agents, too. We're well aware of it. People call us, say it's on Craigslist for $900, when the true listing price is $2,500 or $3,000. "

Craigslist has a link on its page for renting houses or apartments with some good advice for avoiding scams, such as:

"Never wire funds via Western Union, MoneyGram or any other wire service -- anyone who asks you to do so is a scammer."

Craigslist goes to great lengths to prevent scams from reaching users, spokeswoman Susan MacTavish Best said in an email. The online service uses "a wide array of technological and staff measures to suppress scam attempts," she said, but some get through. Those "are generally quickly identified and removed by user flagging."

Contact Pete Carey at 408-920-5419.

how to avoid rent frauds and scams

Insist on meeting the owner.
Don't rent if you can't inspect the interior.
Don't wire a deposit in exchange for the keys.
Be wary of rentals that are "too good to be true."
Get a written rental agreement
Be suspicious if the owner doesn't want any information about you.

Sources: Santa Clara County District Attorney, Craigslist