Most of today’s rental scams occur online, targeting not only tenants, but landlords as well.
While internet advertising may be the least expensive way for landlords to market their property and the most convenient way for tenants to find a rental, it can also make both parties more susceptible to fraudulent activity because of the lack of identification (anonymity) used during these exchanges.
Here are some warning signs landlords and tenants should be aware of when it comes to rental scams, along with tips on how to exercise caution online.
It can be hard to spot phony tenants, or even to prevent people from copying a property listing and posting it on another rental site, but there are things you can do to proactively protect yourself and your property from fraudulent activity.
Keep your eyes and ears open to these warning signs:
- Your tenant overpays you “by accident” and asks if you can send the excess money to their friend or family member. In these cases, the check isn’t found to be fake until after the money has already been transferred.
- Your ad has been duplicated on another website, listing it at a lower price with different contact information.
Tips for protecting yourself:
- Try to avoid listing the exact address of your property. If possible, for apartments or condos, only list the address but not suite number.
- Ask the tenant to provide proof of identity and have them fill out a rental application.
- Perform thorough screening on all tenants, including reference and credit checks.
- Get everything in writing and keep copies of emails and text messages.
- Do not advertise your home as vacant or available for immediate possession; this in particular can lure scam artists to pose as you (the landlord), change the locks, or even break in and steal your property.
- If your rental is empty, check in regularly.
- Change locks between tenants.
It goes without saying, but usually when an apartment, condo, or home rental ad appears too good to be true, it usually is.
Some common warning signs are:
- A listing with a lower price than the average of similar rentals in the area.
- Any requests by the landlord to wire money before meeting or signing a lease.
- The landlord requests a deposit in order “to hold” or “get a deal on” the property.
- Any out-of-country property managers that are away on business, ministries of service, or military service.
- The landlord can’t meet you but offers to send you the keys through the mail or deliver them through an agent.
- They ask for personal information, such as your bank account information or social security number. While it’s common for landlords to perform credit checks, they must first ask your permission and you should always give them your information securely after meeting in person.
- The property has a “for sale” sign in the front yard.
- The landlord does not return your calls.
- Any desperate, accommodating, or urgent communication with pressure to close the deal quickly.
- Sometimes, poor spelling or grammar in ads or emails can indicate scams as well.
Tips for protecting yourself:
- Google the property listing to see if there is another one listed under a different owner’s name.
- Search for the name of the landlord, property manager, or rental company for reviews.
- Check out prices for rentals in the area to give you an idea of the going rate for similar properties.
- Ask friends and family for rental recommendations rather than going through an anonymous source.
- Always see the property in person with the property manager/landlord first before giving them any money, information, or filling out a rental application. Never wire money to anyone.
- Ask questions about the property, neighborhood, and past tenants.
- Check for malware in any email attachments you receive from the landlord. Do not open any documents that might be dangerous.
What to Do if You Become a Victim of Fraud
If you have reason to believe you are being scammed, contact your credit card company or banking institution immediately to freeze your account.
Next, you should report the individual or fraudulent business to the local police. Lodge a complaint with the appropriate government agencies, such as the Better Business Bureau, FTC Complaint Assistant, or Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
Send out a fraud alert with any major credit bureaus if you think that your identity is at risk of being stolen. This is if you have provided personal information about yourself to the imposter.
Stop contact with the fraudster and contact the classified site you found the rental listing on and report the ad so that they can remove it.
If you continue to receive any suspicious communication, such as emails, do not open it. Do not respond to phone calls. Consider changing your email address and blocking the phone number if the abuse continues.
Be aware that scam artists move quickly, so you might not always be able to pinpoint the felon. And unfortunately, the majority of fraud victims do not get their money back.
Life After Fraud
There’s no doubt that getting scammed can leave you emotionally and financially marred, but there are key takeaways from the experience. Most importantly, you know how to identify warning signs and protect yourself in the future.
Additionally, you might find that speaking openly and honestly to others about your experience can help you to move on. Your story may even make more people aware of the issue and potentially prevent them from landing in a similar situation.
Online forums, classifieds, and rental boards are popular places for real estate scam artists because of the anonymity that these websites provide. As with any type of transaction online, you should be on the lookout for any red flags before giving out your personal information to anyone.
If you are unsure about the validity of someone’s request or offering, evaluate the situation fully prior to taking the next step or contacting that individual. You can even ask your family, friends, or trusted colleagues for their opinion if you feel like something isn’t quite right. Most of the time, if your instinct is telling you something is wrong, then there usually is.
Above all, always get proof of identity for those you are dealing with, as well as written documentation, such as a lease agreement, to shield yourself before money is exchanged in any type of rental arrangement.
Have you or someone you know been victim to rental fraud? Share your story with us to help prevent others from enduring the same outcome.