Apartment Search Money

A Guide to Recognizing and Avoiding Rental Scams

rental fraud

As a renter, it is important to know how to protect yourself against those who may try to take your money fraudulently. While the internet has increased flexibility and ease in finding apartments for rent from trusted sources, unfortunately it has also created an environment where scammers thrive. In 2020, a massive shift to heavy reliance on virtual property tours and online research has created new opportunities for scammers to take advantage of renters.

Since the beginning of the year, local Better Business Bureaus have issued warnings in multiple areas across the country of a spike in rental scams. Local authorities have cautioned renters to pay even more attention when apartment hunting, because scammers are using the social distancing rules to avoid showing apartments and promote fraudulent rental listings. Rental scams have been signaled in every corner of the country, from Boston to San Diego, from Arizona to Washington state.

As an apartment listing website that prides itself in offering 100% verified listings directly from property managers, we at RENTCafé are committed to ensure a safe and worry-free apartment search. Which is why we have put together this comprehensive guide to help you recognize and avoid rental scams.

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What is a Rental Scam?

According to the U.S. government, a rental scam is when “either a property owner or potential tenant misrepresents themselves” through fake ads, applications and so on. While there are other types of scams, today we’ll focus on recognizing scams as a renter and protecting yourself against such risks. Unfortunately, there are a variety of ways in which scammers try to steal your money, primarily through either a non-existent rental or via a stolen ad from another website.

Types of Rental Scams

apartments for rent online

Among the various types of rental scams, watch out for hijacked ads and phantom rentals. These are often prominent on Craigslist, where there are no filters to help you find legitimate listings.

  • Hijacked Ads

In some cases, scammers will steal an ad from an existing rental and revise the contact information so that you reach them when trying to contact the owner. These copycat ads will appear on different websites, as well, so make sure you check to see whether the internet listing service you’re using has 100% verified listings.

Another way scammers hijack ads is by gaining access to the email accounts of various property owners. Therefore, it’s important to confirm that you’re talking to the real owner.

avoiding rental fraud

  • Phantom Rentals

Other scammers simply create a fake ad on a non-existent rental and promote it as real. Typically, these are the ones that have a significantly lower rent than average or amenities that should raise the price. If an offer looks too good to be true, find out what caused that drop in price and always check out the apartment with your own eyes before committing and sending any amount of money.

Another scam that’s common on Craigslist is illegal subletting. Be careful about this one. Unlike the others, these scammers will have access to a rental to show you — but they’re not the legitimate owners and have no right to rent it to you. To avoid this situation, research who the real owner of a unit or building is.

How to Spot a Rental Scam

There are plenty of other ways in which you can be deceived into thinking a rental is legitimate when, in fact, the person you’re talking to has no intention of renting it to you. To that end, pay attention to these red flags when discussing a rental with a potential landlord:

  1. They Refuse to Meet You

visit apartment in person

Scammers usually steer clear of meeting with you because they want to minimize the chance of being identified. As such, they will refuse to meet with you in person or — in the context of the pandemic — even show their face during a video call. This is a red flag because a legitimate landlord would want to see their potential tenant and evaluate you, as well, in order to establish the required level of trust between the owner and the occupant of a home.

  1. They Ask You to Wire Money

A major warning sign is when someone asks you for money up front — before you’ve signed anything. For instance, a scammer might claim that they’re not in the country and require you to mail them money with the promise that they’ll mail you back a key. Don’t do it. Instead, cease all communications and report it as a scam. Furthermore, wait to pay your security deposit, rent and any other fees until after you’ve seen the property, met the landlord and signed the lease.

  1. They Ask You to Pay for a Credit Score Check on a Referral Website

Another common type of scam is related to credit reports. Specifically, some scammers ask their unknowing victims to obtain a credit report through a link they send you in an email. The link then redirects the renter to a screening company, where the renter is supposed to pay for their evaluation via credit card. Consequently, the scammers get a commission through the referral campaign, although they clearly have no intention of renting to you — if the rental you’re applying for even exists.

  1. There’s No Screening Process

As a renter, you should be prepared to undergo a screening process involving your credit score and a background check. If there is no such process for the property you want to rent, that should raise a lot of questions. That’s because landlords are very careful about whom they let into their apartments, and you want a landlord who is concerned and experienced. Conversely, a landlord who skips the rental application and credit check is not going to have either of those traits.

  1. The Listing is Shady

If the listing itself has typos, excessive punctuation or grammatical errors, that might also be a sign that it’s fraudulent. Professional property managers or serious landlords will have an accurate, quality description. So, if the listing is poorly written, chances are that you’re dealing with a scammer. Be especially careful about the supposed deal if it’s paired with a price that is much lower than the average rent for a similar unit.

How to Avoid Rental Scams

avoid rental scams

  • Always Use Apartment Search Websites with Verified Listings

Not all internet listings websites are created equal, so be sure to use one where scammers are not able to post listings. At RENTCafé, we understand the mental comfort that this feature gives our website visitors when searching for their next home. That’s why all rentcafe.com listings are verified, coming directly from property managers. We don’t advertise single units posted by individual owners, rather, all apartments and single-family rentals listed on rentcafe.com are provided by property management companies.

Scammers may hijack ads from trusted websites and post them on less secure websites. Fortunately, you can do a reverse Google image search of the property you find to see if it appears on multiple websites under different names or displaying different information. In that case, you can contact the original listing owner or your local authorities to report the fraudulent ad.

  • Meet the Landlord & See the Apartment in Person

The best way to prevent yourself from falling for a scam is to meet the landlord and see the apartment in person before you sign the lease. Be prepared to ask questions related to the rental and living there — such as details about payments, maintenance requests and refund policies — and see how the landlord responds.

Even during the pandemic, solutions have been found to minimize social exposure, such as self-guided tours. This is an important last step before signing any contract or making any sort of payment. That’s because you need to make sure that the place is real, the person you’ve been in contact with has access to it, and everything is transparent so you know what you’re paying for.

  • Get Everything in Writing

Before you send any money, review the terms of the rental, including the price of rent, all fees and maintenance. Ask for a copy of the contract for yourself, as well, but only sign it after you’ve researched the owner and the agent to verify their identities.

How to Report a Rental Scam

how to report rental scams

If you come across a rental scam or fall victim to one, contact the platform in which you found the listing to make sure they take it down. You can also reach out to the Federal Trade Commission and your local law enforcement agency. And, because these take place on the internet, you can also send a report to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), as well. The IC3 works with the FBI to take down any scheme that occurs on the internet, including rental scams.

Be aware that scammers are out there and be skeptical when you spot a deal that seems too good to be true. Do your research and don’t give in to the excitement of the moment — most scammers will also pressure you into thinking that you’re losing the deal. Instead, remain calm and be patient. If you see any of the red flags listed here, cut all connections and don’t be afraid to report the listing to prevent others from falling for rental scams.

Expert Advice on Rental Scams

Lawyers and realtors also have advice for dealing with scammers and reporting rental frauds. In particular, they say to never confront a scammer directly. Rather, these experts recommend educating yourself on how to spot these fraudulent listings and knowing how to safely report them. We thank them for their collaboration; click on their names below to see their full answers.

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About the author

Mihaela Buzec

Mihaela is an online content developer for RENTCafé. She has a BA in English Language and Literature and an MA in Current Linguistics. She is a passionate reader, writer, and researcher, with a background in academic writing. You can get in touch with Mihaela at mihaela.buzec@yardi.com.

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