The strangest thing happened when my husband and I moved into our new rental home this winter. As we were unpacking the moving van, a man we did not know approached the house.
“Do you know where the owner is?” He asked. “I asked to rent this house but never got a response.”
We had signed the lease a month before, but according to this stranger, he applied online the same week and even paid a $ 25 application fee.
Puzzled, we put him in touch with our owner, who told us that the property had been fraudulently advertised on Apartments.com, a popular online marketplace, for $ 700 less than the listing she created. The house, obviously, was not for rent.
John Breyault, National Consumers League vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud, says rental scams are more common than you might think. According to the most recent FBI Internet Crime Report, there were over 11,000 complaints about real estate and rental scams in 2019 – and that doesn’t take into account the thousands of scam ads that go unreported.
Over the past year, as the coronavirus pandemic has forced many homeowners to turn to virtual screenings and online lease signatures, rental scams have increased across the country. In Thorton, Colo., Three families fell for the exact same rental scam last April – each losing more than $ 2,000 in the process, according to KDVR in Denver. Last month, a California couple handed over $ 13,000 to someone posing as an owner, the Chronicle of San Francisco reports.
The MO for these scams is simple. Scammers post bogus ads on rental sites like Zillow, Redfin, Apartments.com, and Craigslist in an attempt to trick people into paying bogus administrative fees and rental deposits. These bogus ads are usually copies of past or current ads, and often use photos ripped from legitimate photos.
Online payment apps like Venmo and Zelle have made it easy for scammers to get money without ever meeting a potential tenant. And once this transaction is completed, it is almost impossible to get your money back.
Before this stranger showed up in front of our new home, I had no idea how easy it was to be the victim of a rental scam. So I asked Breyault how my husband and I could protect ourselves if we ever looked for a new rental. This is what he told me.
Never save money for a house or apartment you haven’t seen
If you are looking for a rental, make sure you have taken a look at it before paying an administration fee or a deposit. Ditto personal information such as bank details or your social security number.
How you choose to “see” a property in the midst of a nationwide pandemic ultimately depends on your own level of comfort. An in-person visit is ideal to help you decide if you want to rent accommodation (plus you’ll likely meet the owner). But a Skype or Zoom visit is better than not seeing a place at all.
However, it is not excluded that a scammer sends a fake video tour, especially since many rental properties already include them in their listings. If you have no choice but to rely on a video tour, ask to do so live.
If you’re moving from out of town and a Zoom visit isn’t an option, Breyault suggests asking a family member, friend, or coworker to see the location for you.
Either way, don’t just rely on the pictures. “No good landlord would be willing to have you sign a lease on a house without showing it to you first,” he says.
Pay attention to the way you are asked to pay
Scammers often ask to be paid by wire transfer or through a payment app like Venmo because it is difficult to reverse these payments. Some scammers even ask victims to put money on gift cards and give them the code on the back, which is a less trackable way to scam people with money.
Keep in mind that most homeowners will request a paper check or other secure form of payment, and only request payment after seeing the space, completing an application, and passing a background check.
Take your time
Scammers also lure in people with below market rents to instill a sense of urgency that prompts people to spend before they think. If you find a good deal in a good neighborhood, it can be tempting to want to jump on it before someone else does.
If the person who posted the ad responds to your requests by prompting you to make a down payment quickly, don’t be in a rush.
“The risk of fraud is much greater than missing a good deal,” says Breyault.
Do your research beforehand
As a general rule of thumb, if a potential location’s price, location, or amenities seem too good to be true, they probably are. If you’re new to an area or don’t know the local cost of housing, do some research by browsing comparable listings before you start looking for a rental. That way, you’ll keep scrolling when you find an immaculate two-bedroom apartment in downtown Manhattan listed for $ 1,000 per month.
A reverse Google image search can be another useful tool here, especially if you see an apartment listed well below market rates. (Just drag and drop the photos from the ad to Google Images).
“If a rental is both nicer and significantly inferior to what’s on the market… it’s definitely shady,” says Breyault.
If you think you’ve spotted a fraudulent ad, Breyault advises you to report it to the website where you found it. Most sites make it easy to report suspicious rentals through a button built into the listing itself or through the site’s help center.
If you’ve ever invested money for a bogus rental, report it to your state’s attorney general’s office. Be sure to alert your bank if you’ve provided any personal or financial information, and consider freezing your credit report.
Breyault recommends filing a complaint on Fraud.org; a nonprofit website that reports consumer complaints to the Federal Trade Commission.
“A complaint may not get you your money back or put the fraudster behind bars, but all of the data collected is records that can lead to arrest and prosecution,” he says.
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