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Rental Scams: How to Recognize and Avoid Rental Fraud

Whether you’re searching for a home to rent in your current town or in another state, it can be tempting to snap up an appealing property before taking time to do your research. This is particularly true if you’re on a tight deadline to find a place, making it even more important to be on the lookout for potential fraud. A rental scam is a well-known tool for identity theft, and victims can lose thousands of dollars paying fees to false entities. Anyone can fall victim to a rental scam — many of the perpetrators are sophisticated and convincing. 

Here are five questions to ask yourself to detect warning signs of possible bad actors in the rental market, and tips for ensuring your rental process is safe and secure.

1. Does the monthly rent seem too good to be true?

One clue to a scam is a rental price that’s too low for the neighborhood. If you see an affordable apartment in your dream location and the rent is way below what others are charging, there may be a problem. Scammers often prey on first-time renters, long-distance movers and those who are anxious about finding a home quickly. To rush them into false transactions, a scammer may advertise that they have a rare opportunity which might disappear fast — keep in mind that the thrill of the deal is what scammers take advantage of. 

What to do: To avoid the “too good to be true” scam, research rental prices in the area for the size of unit and amenities you’re looking for. If you’re interested in a listing where the rental price is unexpectedly low, ask the property manager or landlord upfront why the rent is so low for the area, and keep copies of all your communication. 

2. Is this listing legitimate?

When searching for rentals online, if you come across the same listing under a different name, that’s a clue it may be a scam. Scammers without actual rentals to tour may hijack a real rental or real estate listing and change the email address or other contact information. They’ll then place the modified ad on another listing site to attract renters. 

What to do: Search listings you’re interested in touring to see if they appear elsewhere online. If the property is listed on major rental listings sites, make sure the listing contains the same contact information, landlord name, address and other high level details. 

3. How is payment requested?

Red flags should go up if a landlord or property manager requests you to pay with cash, a wire transfer or a money order. Wired money and money orders are like sending cash — once you send it, you have no way to accurately trace it. 

What to do: Typically the best way to make any type of rental payment is through electronic deposit from your bank account. You can set this up with your bank. This way, there’s a clear, easy-to-access record of where your money went. You can also use a credit card (subject to interest) or a paper check (if you still have some). Larger, modern properties often have a website with a resident portal where you pay your rent online. 

4. Are you being asked to provide personal information before viewing the property?

Not only should you be able to view the property before making any kind of payment, you should request a tour before submitting a rental application or otherwise providing personal identifiers like your credit card number, social security number, or date of birth. Most scammers don’t have an actual rental property. Seeing the rental in person will help you verify that the unit actually exists. 

What to do: Whenever possible, see the property in person. If you’re unable to view the rental in person, request an online tour or consider engaging an agent or friend to view it on your behalf. If the landlord claims they’re unavailable to show the property, or conditions the showing on you providing sensitive personal information in advance, this may be a red flag.

5. Is this a real or phantom property?

Another fraud tactic involves showing prospective renters properties that don’t actually exist in order for the scammer to obtain the prospective renter’s security deposit. In some cases, the scammer will take advantage of remote inquiries by offering a virtual tour of a home, but the building isn’t actually up for rent. 

What to do: If you’re searching for rentals remotely and can’t visit an apartment or house yourself, ask someone you trust, such as a friend, agent or a fellow employee if you’re moving for a job offer, to visit in-person for you.

Additionally, be sure to schedule an in-person or virtual meeting with your prospective landlord early in the process. If you feel you need to do further research on the property, the local Assessor’s office or County Clerk can provide property records. Verify all names, websites and phone numbers in the listing. If the property manager has a website, read reviews to spot any potential red flags ahead of time. 

Further resources

If you think you’ve run across a rental scam, report it to local law enforcement and the FTC. You can also report a fraudulent listing to Zillow. Be sure to keep copies of all communications between you and the possible scammer.

By, January 01, 2020

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