online rental scams

A tight rental market has resulted in fewer vacancies and more competition during the rental search process. Prospective tenants are finding they need to be ready with a complete rental application, qualifying credit scores, a clean rental history, money down, and the decision to sign the lease and move immediately!

Competitive rental markets have made vacancies as low as 1% in some cities(I am looking at you San Francisco) as rental rates grow at astonishing rates. Availability and price can make some renters fall prey to scammers who post fraudulent rental listings online.

To help protect renters, here’s a look at how to spot a scammy rental listing and stay safe during your rental search process.  

Stay on the lookout to avoid these common rental scams to protect your personal safety and avoid paying your hard earn money to the wrong person.  

Too good to be true.

If you are looking online for a rental property you should have an idea of the average rental rate for your preferred type of property. In general, most properties are priced comparably for number of bedrooms and amenities.  

But when you see a property that seems like a dream come true price point, it probably is. A beautiful apartment, in the best neighborhood, with the best features is not going to be the most affordable apartment on Craigslist. Ever.

Don’t waste your time by seeing if the “too good to be true” property is still available, because it probably doesn’t exist.

The out of town landlord.

Renters are advised to be extremely cautious when dealing with an out of town landlord, especially a landlord who claims to be out of the country. A serious rental property owner will use a property manager who handles leasing if they live out of the area to manage their property, so a landlord who claims to live out of state is a red flag.  

You should always insist on meeting a landlord or property manager in person before signing a lease or paying any money.

If you are moving from out-of-state to a new city and a face-to-face meeting is impossible, do you research to make sure you are going to be renting from a real rental professional; ask for references, check property records, and read online reviews.  

Send me money and I’ll send you keys.

Avoid sending money in exchange for keys to see or rent a property. Scammers will claim they want you to send money, usually via a wire transfer, to show how serious you are about the property.  Once they get the money they say they will send you keys or “make the trip” to show you the property but a scammer will not hold up their end of the exchange.

Wire transfers through companies like Western Union or MoneyGram are untraceable and non-refundable, which is why they are preferred by scammers and should be a HUGE red flag to prospects.

Rental scammers will try to include a lot of unnecessary detail to appear legitimate to prospects. They will mention lawyers or agents and added security measures, like address verification, to build trust and authority with their victim.  At the same time they remain vague and distant about property specifics or reasons for not accepting alternative forms of payment.

High pressure email exchanges.

Creating a sense of urgency is a common sales technique that rental scammers often employ. If you feel pressured to make a decision, especially in regards to paying money, to secure a rental lease over email be very careful.  

A rental scammer will try to make the property seem extra desirable by stating how many people are already interested and giving you a timeline to make a decision.  Often times you are asked to commit by sending or paying money.

Other types of rental scams.

Beyond fake rental listings, some scammers will take advantage of rental prospects in person.

In some subleasing scams, a con artist will meet a renter prospect in person at the property under the guise of a sublet or roommate situation. After the initial meeting, a “landlord” introduction will take place, leases will get signed, and money will be exchanged for keys. But suddenly it comes to light that the subletter and landlord were fake and the victim gave money to a stranger who suddenly has a disconnected phone number and disappeared without a trace.

You can read about a real life story of a subletting scam detailed by Sara Gates for Huffington Post.

Renters are advised to research the property and landlord before paying any money to avoid subletting scams like this.

Avoid online fraud.

When completing your rental search online look out for these red flags that indicate rental scams: rent below market rate, out-of-town landlord, and paying money for a sight-unseen property.  

You should do your research to ensure the legitimacy of the person and property you are dealing with. If something seems fishy, trust your gut and walk away to avoid a rental scam.

If you encounter a scammy looking rental listing, use the listing website’s tools to report or flag the listing.

If you suspect or become a victim of rental fraud, immediately report the incident to the local law enforcement. You can also contact the Internet Crime Complaint Center and the Federal Trade Commission.

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