Apartment hunting is daunting and stressful enough, in the best possible circumstances, without having to worry if the room is real, or the landlord exists. Unfortunately, in today’s digitally-dependent landscape, rental scams are a sad fact of life.
Rental scams are hard to keep track of and difficult to police, as mentioned in an article for the Orange County Register, but their numbers consistently rise when rents are rising and vacancies are low, which is precisely the time when apartment searching becomes extra challenging.
No one wants to start off in their new home under a black cloud of bad luck, extra stress, mistrust or unnecessary financial strain. To help avoid this, we’ve compiled a list of warning signs to watch out for – everything you need to know, to learn how to avoid rental scams.
The Most Common Scams
The first step in avoid rental scams is knowing what to look out for. The most common types of rental scams are Hijacked Ads and Phantom Rentals, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Hijacked Ads: Hijacked Ads are when a scammer modifies an existing ad and replaces the original contact info with their own details and then reposts the ad on another site. Scammers can also go so far as to hack the e-mail accounts of an existing real estate company or property owners. (Ed. note: They may even set up fake Twitter and Facebook accounts in order to fool you as you try to verify that they are for real.)
Phantom Rentals: Phantom Rentals are either listings of properties that aren’t actually for rent or posting a property that doesn’t actually exist. Scammers hope to procure payment from you before you notice the error.
Both hijacked ads and phantom rentals are considered rental fraud, as well as possibly wire fraud and phishing, all of which warrant serious jail time, to give you an idea of the severity of the crime. If you believe you may have been victim to rental fraud, you can file a complain with the FTC, or contact local law officials.
7 Ways To Spot Rental Scams
Now that you know what you’re looking for, here’s seven basic ways to identify potential rental scams.
1. Asking For A Wire Transfer: The first, and most glaringly obvious, sign of a rental scam is when a renter wants you to wire money, possibly as a security deposit or application fee. Wiring money is the same as sending cash, with no way to get it back once it’s sent, so buyer beware!
2. Asking For Money Before Seeing The Property Or Signing A Lease: It’s always risky, procuring a place that you can’t see in person, from a person you’ve never met in the flesh. In the case of apartment hunting in your own city, ALWAYS see the rental and meet the landlord before handing over any kind of deposit or fees. In the case that you’re out of the area, consider either asking someone local to check out the place or, at the very least, run a background check on the landlord or rental company.
3. Too Good To Be True: The sad fact of the matter in this world is that if it’s too good to be true, then it probably isn’t. Some major red flags to watch out for are rents significantly below the going rate for an area, not asking for any kind of deposits, and all utilities being included,
That being said, don’t let this information let you become jaded, as there are great deals and saintly landlords all over. Just remember to perform due diligence, when researching a rental, and you should be good.
4. No Pictures Or Addresses: Another warning sign of a potential scam is when an ad has no photographs or addresses. Again, not every ad without an address is going to be a scam, but just remember to ask for more details, before signing anything or sending any money.
5. Suspicious E-mail Usage: This is a tricky one, as a lot of private individuals are renting out properties, along with more established and professional rental companies. If a landlord’s e-mail address is particularly spammy looking, like a string of unintelligible characters, it’s just one more reason to take a closer look, before closing any deals. Likewise, if the e-mail uses non-standard English, it should be a yellow flag.
6. Out Of The Country: This common trick should raise serious alarms! What kind of landlord goes for an overseas vacation when attempting to lease a property? Like the rest of the suspicious activity on this list, the answer is clear: if you can’t see the property, meet the landlord, or sign any kind of document before exchanging money, DON’T DO IT!
7. Use Google Maps. Finally, always verify address and building on Google Maps to weed out scammers using a legitimate address but one that is clearly not a rental building.
Remember, don’t let the fact that there are scammers out there give you negative feelings towards the housing hunt. Your perfect home is waiting for you. These little vignettes of wisdom are to help you know what to avoid, to help you better focus on what you want, without fear or doubt.