How to Avoid Rental Scams
The last thing anyone wants to happen in their search for a new apartment is to fall victim to a rental scam. Renting an apartment is one of a person’s biggest upfront expenses, and thieves looking for an easy source of cash are well aware of that. Scam artists try to take advantage of people who are searching for an apartment because the emotions involved in the apartment-hunting process can make renters more vulnerable and trusting. Also, scam artists prey on people who are in time sensitive situations and need to find a new place to live as soon as possible (ie. due to job relocation or a personal issue). Fortunately, it is easy enough to spot a scam and lower the chances of getting taken advantage of by one.
What is a Rental Scam?
Most rental scams are a variation of the same theme. The scammer tries to get money from an apartment hunter for an apartment that they are not legally allowed to rent out. The apartment could be real but the scammer doesn't have the authority to lease it out, or it could just be a fake listing altogether. An example of this may be a tenant who is moving from his apartment and decides to show it, pretending he is the landlord. He might collect fees and security deposits up front from all prospects, making them all believe they will be getting the apartment. By the time the prospects realize it was a scame, usually the scammer has already dissapeared with their money.
To be safe, always have your guard up when searching for an apartment. Even when using a reputable apartment search web site, it is still possible to get scammed by unscrupulous people. Scammers use many tools and methods to post false listings online. If something feels wrong with a listing, the application process feels rushed, or the experience seems too good to be true, it may be wise to reconsider pursuing it.
Ways to Avoid Getting Scammed:
Verify the owner
When searching for an apartment, verify that everyone you talk to is who they say they are. If you are looking at a large complex with a clearly marked leasing office, it is probably safe. With small complexes or smaller homes, you should check public records on government websites to verify who the owner is and that the person you’re dealing with actually works for them. You should also make sure the name listed matches the landlord’s ID, and research the email address and phone number of the landlord or owner on Google. If they never provide you with a telephone number or refuses to speak to you on the phone, you should be concerned. The Internet can be very helpful, you sometimes find that someone else has already posted a report on the individual you are skeptical of.
Never pay cash
It is safer to pay with a check than with cash so that there is a legal trail of your money. A receipt does not mean much to a person who is already lying to you to get your money. A check gives you more protection, and information is returned to your bank with the account information of the person who cashed it. If you were scammed, the authorities will be able to trace the check and it will be more likely that your money is recovered.
Be alert to online reviews
The places with the best reviews are sometimes places with the biggest problems. Few tenants actually leave apartment reviews, so an apartment with a large number of five-star reviews in a short period of time likely paid paid people to write them to cover up bad reviews. On the other hand, sometimes tenants who had a bad experience will go out of their way to leave the worst review possible. Reviews are great to check for common complaints such as noise or bugs, but don’t rely solely on them to make big decisions.
Check your lease carefully
Sometimes an apartment manager will write in a higher rent amount than you discussed into the lease, and then demand payment for that amount when the rent is due. Other tricks they sometimes use include: additional fees, putting appliance repair costs on you, or wording the lease so that a short last month is still full price. It is technically not illegal, so you must always read your lease carefully in order to avoid falling victim to one of these tricks. Don't fill out an application until you've seen the property firsthand. Some apartment communities will offer legitimate applications on the property's website, but never submit an application with personal information until you have confirmed that the property exists. Do not send money to anyone without first securing a lease and confirming the property manager has a legal right to rent the property.
Consider using a broker
Using a broker may be helpful, especially with a long-distance apartment search. He or she will already be familiar with which companies are legitimate and will have heard of any major problems. They might also offer protection such as insurance in case of fraud. Just make sure you know how they get paid because if they receive money from apartment complexes or if their pay is higher if your rent is higher, then those brokers may have an incentive that doesn’t match your best interests. Brokers are licensed so you can check with the state to find out if they are legitimate.
Common Red Flags to Avoid
Wiring money: The easiest way to spot a scam is when the “landlord” asks you to MoneyGram or Western Union the security deposit or first months rent before you even see the apartment. Do not send them the money for any reason at all. According to a warning on craigslist, 99% of rental scams can be identified by this factor alone.
Long distance owner: The most typical excuse for requiring that you send them the money is because they currently live in another state or country, or are on a mission somewhere helping out the less fortunate. They really try to appeal to your softer side and may appear very kind and honorable. You should always be able to view the apartment with the landlord or agent in person. If they can't meet you or show the apartment then it is probably a scam. It is also a good idea to bring a friend or family member with you, just to be on the safe side. You are planning to meet a total stranger, and sometimes people may not have the same intentions with an encounter that they say they do.
Pricing: if the apartment or house is listed for a lot less than similar nearby properties, or offers a lot more with more leniency, that is a red flag. If it seems too good to be true, then unfortunately it probably is.
Errors: If the email contains uncommon, grammatical errors and typos, is lengthy due to a sad or overly detailed story, it is most likely a scam.
Personal Information: Sometimes separating you from your cash through a one-time transaction is not the scammer’s intent. They may want to attack you repeatedly by taking personal information from you and stealing your identity. To avoid being a victim of identity theft, do not hand over any personal information, whether in the form of a rental application or otherwise, until after you have viewed the property. Some communities will offer applications on their verified websites, which may be safe, but never submit an application that contains personal or confidential information unless you are positive it is a legitimate operation.
What if it happens to you?
You don’t have to be ignorant or uninformed to be the victim of a rental scam. It has happened to good, smart people, and it can happen to you. If you think you have been the victim of a rental scam, contact your local authorities, the Federal Trade Commission, or FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) to file a complaint. You are likely not the scammer’s first victim, but you could help put their streak to an end.