Doug Sovern’s KCBS Cover Story Series: Through the Roof airs on KCBS 740AM/106.9FM through Friday at 6:30am, 8:30am, 12:30pm and 4:30pm.

SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) – The housing crunch in San Francisco has given rise to all sorts of questionable screening practices, even a few scams, as landlords and con artists rush to cash in on the boom.

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It’s renter beware in the current Bay Area housing market, and especially San Francisco, said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, director of counseling programs at the Housing Rights Committee.

“People are being taken advantage of to the max,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”

The sob stories run the gamut from expensive application fees and bogus credit report fees for background checks that never happen, to outrageous holding fees that landlords refuse to refund when another renter winds up getting the apartment.

“There are all kinds of scams that we’re hearing about,” Avicolli Mecca said.

“Two thousand dollars for a holding fee, then they don’t get the apartment and they’ve got to go to court to get the holding fee back.”

Some have been taken in by online listings that say the first person to send in a check will get the apartment, sight unseen, only to discover a fake landlord has disappeared with the money.

Avicolli Mecca said many tenants are so desperate to find a place that they just pay up and keep quiet.

Some renters are savvy enough to navigate the treacherous market though.

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Riley Strong, a software engineer who just moved to the city after being hired recently by Square, said he figured out pretty quickly not to pay just for the privilege of looking at an apartment.

“We’ve just completely avoided any place that calls for an application fee because it’s not worth it,” he said.

Indeed not everything is as it seems with the plethora of new apps, websites and listing agencies, said Sheri Castilyn, a leasing agent for

“Craigslist is great. Some of it is not legitimate. If you have any sort of feeling that something is not right, back away,” she said.

The bad guys have been preying on the desperation of renters trying to get a leg up in a competitive marketplace, said Supervisor David Campos, whose district includes the Mission.

“We don’t want people to be taken advantage of, and I think that things are difficult as it is,” Campos said.

“It’s wrong and we have to make sure that we prevent that.”

One solution to the proliferation of rip-offs, said Avicolli Mecca, is to address the larger housing crisis in the city that has been ignored for too long.

“We’re declaring a housing emergency,” Avicolli Mecca said.

The conclusion of “Through the Roof” explores that and other solutions being pursued by housing advocates and politicians at City Hall.

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