With the majority of rental property searches, appointment scheduling and applications occurring online, it has become easier than ever for scammers to take advantage of prospective renters. As technology advances, those looking to deceive renters have also advanced their scams, sometimes making it quite difficult to spot the difference between a legitimate ad and a fraudulent one. However, if prospective renters and property owners educate themselves on the different types of scams and are aware of the red flags to look out for, it will be much easier to rest assured that you're doing business with the appropriate people and not inadvertently sending money or sensitive information to a scammer.
Spotting Fraudulent Listings
Oftentimes, fraudulent listings look very similar to real listings. In fact, one of scammers' favorite things to do is copy real listings and change the contact and pricing information. This makes it quite difficult to spot a fake listing even for the most astute renters. Fortunately, there are some things you can be on the lookout for in rental listings that may signify the listing is a fake.
- Is the listing missing a full address or photos? If a rental listing is missing these key components, it is probably fake. If you do have an address, Google it. By doing this, you may be able to see what other websites the listing appears on and compare information - price, contact information, listing details - to see if they all match up. If the one you're viewing doesn't match up with the majority of the listings for the same property on other sites, you're probably looking at a fake.
- Does the price seem too good to be true? If it does, then it probably is. A scammer-favorite is to list properties at seemingly amazing prices in order to attract more attention from prospective renters. A good way to avoid this is to do some research into market prices in the area and to check pricing of surrounding rental homes. If the one you're looking at is priced way below comparable homes in the area, it’s probably a scam.
- Is the ad offering no background or credit checks? Legitimate property management companies and landlords will almost always want to check into potential tenants. Scammers, however, may tout this in their ads in order to attract people with lower credit scores or criminal backgrounds. If you come across this in a property ad, you should do some additional research to verify the listing is legitimate before providing anyone with your personal information.
Common Types of Rental Scams
Unfortunately, scammers don't use just one method to attract potential renters. There are quite a few different ways they can advertise properties to make them seem legitimate and ultimately end up disappearing with your money. Being aware of the different kinds of rental scams is a great way to protect yourself when you're searching for your next home.
- Copying listings from legitimate rental sites: A popular one on Craigslist, scammers will copy photos and details from an actual listing and then change the pricing and contact information. This is typically when they will make the price much lower than the legitimate listing to make their listing seem like the deal of a lifetime. In this scenario, the scammer may be trying to rush you into putting down a deposit by claiming there are many other interested parties. They may also make excuses as to why they're unable to show you the home, ask you to enter through unlocked doors, ask you to leave doors unlocked or refuse to let you inside altogether it until you've put down a deposit.
- A person claims to be acting as the middleman for the property owner: This is another popular scam, especially on websites like Craigslist. You respond to a rental ad and the person who reaches out to you claims that they're acting on behalf of the property owner. In this instance, the person has likely copied the listing information from a legitimate source as mentioned above and will insist on collecting a deposit and rent from you. Usually they have advertised a real property, but it’s a property they have no rights to advertise or lease out.
- Foreign Wire Transfers & Cryptocurrency: Scammers using this avenue may initially attract you with a stolen ad or a story about working for the property owner but will ultimately ask you to wire funds to a foreign destination or pay rent/deposits in cryptocurrency (think Bitcoin). In addition, they will probably be hesitant to allow you to view the inside of the home and insist you can only view the exterior. Once you send money using one of these methods, it is nearly impossible to trace.
- Rentals That Don't Exist: Yes, scammers will even make up listings for properties that don't exist. The property itself could exist but may not be for rent or could possibly be on the sales market instead. Or, the listing could be made up of completely false information and stock photos. This is another instance that scammers will try to lure in prospective renters with beautiful photos and low prices. If you're local to the area in which you're searching, drive by the home to see it for yourself. If you aren't local and cannot find the address or any other ads via a Google search, you may want to be wary of that listing.
How to Avoid Rental Fraud
These days, some fraudulent rental listings can look completely legitimate so even the most cautious renters can be at risk of being scammed. Doing research, insisting on verifying details and listening to your gut are good ways to make sure you're protected.
- Visit the property if at all possible. If you aren't in the area, have someone visit on your behalf if you can. If neither is an option, legitimate property management companies typically have virtual tours available on their websites.
- Verify who owns the property. If you're speaking with someone who claims to own a property, but things seem a bit fishy, check city or county records. You can easily find out who owns properties this way and recognize if a scammer is pretending to be an owner.
- Rent from trusted professional property management companies. If you're concerned about rental scams or if you do have to move into a new home site unseen, larger property management companies are the way to go. These companies have trusted leasing agents, policies and procedures that must be followed and are the best way to guarantee you're not falling victim to a rental scam.
- Don't agree to pay anything in cash, cryptocurrency or via wire transfer. Scammers love these types of payments because they're virtually untraceable. Once you've paid them, they can easily disappear with your money without leaving a paper trail. Legitimate landlords and property management companies will want checks, cashier's checks or accept credit/debit cards for online rental payments.
- Be wary of giving out your personal information. If you provide a rental application to a scammer, you've likely just given them your full name, address, social security number, date of birth and pretty much anything else they would need to steal your identity. If something seems suspicious, look into it further before providing any sensitive information.
What Can You Do if You've Been Scammed?
Unfortunately, there isn't much recourse for those who have fallen victim to rental scams. The scammer who has your money is likely long gone and probably took steps to ensure they wouldn't be able to be traced once they got paid. However, you should still report such activity and there are a few ways to do so.
- Report it to local authorities. The local police or sheriff's office can still take a police report even if they may not be able to track down the scammer. If similar things have been happening to others in your area, they might be working on finding this person and your information could aid in tracking them down.
- Report it to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC helps protect consumers against fraudulent or deceptive business practices. Again, this may not result in getting your money back but making the report can aid in preventing future scams.
- Notify the website where you found the listing. If you found the listing on Craigslist, be sure to notify them. Also, if you recognize the fake listing as a legitimate listing of a property management company that has been stolen, notify the company.
With all of the stresses that searching for a new home and moving bring, the fear of falling victim to a scam is an extra worry renters don’t need. But armed with the right information, renters can be sure that they're protecting themselves and their wallets by looking out for red flags. The best way to ensure you're protected from rental scams is renting through a reputable property management company like Sweyer Property Management. With a multitude of services for both property owners and tenants, our team of experts works diligently to protect owners' investments and to provide tenants with a smooth, worry-free rental experience.