It’s moving season, but finding the right price and location shouldn’t be your only concern if you’re shopping online for a new apartment. These days renters have to also work to avoid rental scams online.
Criminals are using a variety of tricks to steal from hopeful renters, leaving credulous movers with a lot of boxes and nowhere to live.
Whether you’re relocating to a new city or moving for other reasons, it’s important to know what to look for before you hand over your money. Here are some tips to spot rental scams before it’s too late.
Do Not Trust Landlords Who Are Not Available
Angela Colley, a freelance real estate journalist, had someone try to rip her off when looking for a new place in her hometown of New Orleans. She knew something fishy was going on because the person she believed was a landlord kept dodging appointments to show the property.
“I emailed a guy and he was weird but fine, you know at first,” she said. “Then came the excuses. His kid was sick, then he had to work, then the big one: ‘we overbooked the listings.’”
Colley said when “landlords” say that, it’s a sign of a con, and renters should not continue the conversation.
When your schedule won’t accommodate a property showing, the scammer will promise you the property as long as you send money.
“They want you to believe there’s pressure to beat out other renters,” she said.
Scammers will do whatever it takes to get money. In some cases, according to the Federal Trade Commission, they’ve even made fake keys to give to a hopeful tenant in exchange for fast cash. But, sadly, those keys don’t work.
In years past, con artists used to say they were abroad when they asked renters to wire the deposit, but the public has “gotten wise to the out-of-the-country thing and most people won’t fall for that anymore,” Colley said.
The FBI put out an alert, the problem was so common.
Colley said legit landlords will often schedule weekend walkthroughs — and be available to take money in person — so if you cannot easily see the potential property or landlord, move on to the next one.
Always Google the Images and Address on a Rental Ad
Scammers commonly copy real rental ads to create fake ones using their own email addresses.
“They’re not going to write their own ad; it’s going to be a place you can drive by,” Colley said. “Very rarely will they create (an ad) out of thin air.”
It’s important to remember that even if you drive by and see a house for rent, it doesn’t mean the person you’re talking to is the landlord. It’s a common trick to meet renters at a property and then make up an excuse about why the space can’t be viewed.
“People will show up at the apartment building; they just won’t let you inside,” Colley said. “They’ll pretend the keys won’t work.”
A good rule of thumb is to Google the email address and street address on the ad and any phone number they give you. That way you can see if it’s associated with multiple ads or at least get background information on who you are dealing with.
You should also insert at least one of the pictures of the space listed on the ad into Google and search the web to see where else it has been used. This will give you an idea if the ad has been copied and is fake.
The California Bureau of Real Estate advises to make sure the property you’re looking at is not in foreclosure or pre-foreclosure or otherwise for sale, especially if it’s a house. It is another common scam to try to rent a place that is about to change hands. You can try to find more information by typing in the address and the word “real estate,” “foreclosure” or “for sale” into Google.
It’s important to remember that you may not even be safe if you trust the email address of a reputable rental site or agent. Cyber criminals sometimes hack email accounts belonging to legit rental sites and agents, another reason to never go through the process without seeing the home and meeting in person.
Formal English and Real Estate Lingo in Rental Ads are Red Flags
Most landlords are average people and understand they are going to rent to the average person. So, if a rental ad has complicated real estate language, it was likely copied from somewhere.
“If you see a lot of real estate lingo, I would be leery that was ripped off another site,” Colley said.
Another red flag is the use of formal words like ’whom’ and ’therefore’, or any words that suggest English might not be the author’s first language.
“Landlords tend to be more casual,” Colley said.
If you see odd wording in an ad and cannot speak with the landlord on the phone, it would be a safe move to go to the next listing.
If the Rental Price Seems Too Good To Be True, It Probably Is.
While anyone would love to pay $800 for a 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom house in Los Angeles or New York City, it’s not likely to happen. Criminals make up listings and try to attract hopeful renters with the promise of a great looking place for an impossibly low price tag.
So check the rental market rates in the area where you’re hoping to move and make sure the price is near that number. You don’t want it to be too low or too high.
And trust your gut when searching sites like craigslist and Zillow. If you aren’t realistic, you’re at risk of being swindled.
If Someone Asks For a Money Transfer, Don’t Do It!
Money orders and money transfers are beloved by rental con artists and are worth avoiding when you look for a new place to rent.
“People will send money orders in the mail, which is the stupidest thing you can do, because it’s completely untraceable and not refundable,” Colley said. “And if they send a wire transfer, someone can hit your account again and again and again.”
Be cautious of all personal information you provide on an application or email. “No landlord expects your full (bank) account number,” Colley said.
So keep you checkbook closed until you do your research, view the space and sign a lease.
It is unclear how many people are prey to rental scams every year, because no one monitors the issue or keeps statistics, but the amount of predators looking to steal from trusting people continues to remain a large problem, Colley said.
It’s ultimately within the power of renters to be aware and to work to protect themselves from the scam.