When apartment hunting, the one thing you want to avoid is rental scams, which can cost you money, identity theft, and a lot of wasted time. Whether you’ve found a large, inexpensive apartment in your desired location that seems too good a deal or a potential landlord is asking you to wire money before you sign a lease, be cautious and mindful before you agree to anything. Repeat to yourself, “if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is,” and follow these eight tips so you won’t fall victim to rental scammers.
1. Read the Ad Carefully
Your scammer antenna should be up right from the very beginning, when you first read the ad. Typical red flags in ads are: common words misspelled, strange punctuation or Odd Capitalization. Even on Craigslist, a legitimate apartment ad should use proper language.
2. Research, Research, Research
The first thing you should research is to look at comparable apartments in the area and see how much rent those tenants pay. The apartment you’re considering should come with a rent price similar to like apartments in the area. If your potential apartment’s rent is much lower, be aware of a potential scam or serious condition issues and move on to the next apartment and landlord.
You can also do some basic research about the landlord or rental agent listed in the ad, to find if they are on local “slumlord” lists or have bad rating by the Better Business Bureau.
Finally, google the address of the apartment building or complex to find if any unusual or negative information pops up. Also verify with google that the building or address is, in fact, an apartment building and not a warehouse or an empty lot.
3. Meet the Owner/Landlord
Set up a meeting with the owner or landlord so you can discuss the apartment and lease in person. If the owner or his representatives only want to talk via email, text message, or phone, move on. If the landlord is legitimate, the owner or his representative should be willing to meet and discuss details in person.
4. Tour the Apartment
Online pictures can be deceiving. Set up a tour of the apartment before you sign a lease to ensure you’re getting what has been advertised and what you’re paying for.
Sometimes even seeing is not believing. Be aware of a recent scam where criminals rent an AirBnB apartment, show it to unsuspecting apartment hunters and collect deposits before disappearing.
5. Don’t Wire Money or Pay with Cash
Never pay with cash or wire your application fee, security deposit, or first month’s rent. Instead, pay the landlord directly with a check, cashier’s check, or credit card so you know the money is both traceable and going to the correct source. Once you pay with cash or wire money, you can’t trace it to get it back, and you may have wired it to someone other than the landlord.
6. Sign the Lease Before you Pay
You will most likely pay an application fee before you sign the lease, but don’t pay the security deposit or first month’s rent until you sign the lease. You want to ensure that you have a signed lease to document that the apartment is yours before you pay any bigger amounts. Also, make sure that you receive the keys in person and don’t accept promises to have them shipped to you later.
7. Protect Your Identity
Not all scammers are after your money; some are after you identity. Landlords will check your credit before they rent you an apartment, but be careful when handing over sensitive information such as your driver’s license number, Social Security number, and bank account number. Make sure the landlord and the credit check are legitimate, and never enter personal information into any link the landlord has sent to you, especially if the link is an unsecured website.
8. If You Must Rent Long Distance
Scammers love long distance apartment hunters because sometimes you must find a place before you are able to inspect the apartment yourself or meet the landlord. The best way to do that is to use a trusted local friend, or perhaps a school’s housing office (if you are moving to attend one) as an intermediary. The second best way is to find a local, reputable, established realtor and work through them. In some markets you will owe broker’s fees for that service, but in other markets the landlord pays the fees.
If you have been scammed, please share in the comments. New scams surface all the time and we want to hear about them so we can warn our readers.