July 17, 2014

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Renter Beware

With September 1st looming, apartment rental scams are on the rise. Recently we wrote about vacation rental scams––here’s how to protect yourself from rental tricksters when you are in the market for a new apartment.

It’s Just Too Good to Be True

Scammers rely upon the fact that a good deal is hard to pass up. That’s why the most common rental scams (renter bait) are below-market rents advertised on Craigslist or other online communities. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Scammers make their living by posting enticing pictures and descriptions of phantom rentals that don’t exist, or are already rented, in the hope of getting your money before you find out it’s all a big lie.

Plenty of people, myself included, have had good luck with transactions on Craigslist, but you can’t assume everyone on the site, or any other website for that matter, is operating in good faith. If you are interested in a rental that you see online, make sure you or someone you trust can go in person to see the property. If you are able to visit the prospective rental home, play it safe and bring a friend. It’s never a good idea to go alone.

Before responding to any ads, research the local average rental rates for similar properties in the area you want to live. You can do this by looking online, on realty websites, and by calling local rental realtors in your desired neighborhood.

What to Watch Out For

Phishing.” These scams begin with an ad or online listing that does not give out any name, property information, or any means of contact besides an email address. Upon inquiry, the renter is asked to fill out a “rental application” in order to receive more information. Rather than receiving any information, they end up supplying the scammer with their personal information. Never give out any personal information to any so-called realtor over Craigslist.

Hijacking. Rental scammers know how to “hijack” real listings by changing the email address associated with the ad and placing an altered ad on another site. This ensures it looks legitimate. If you respond to an ad and the landlord or realtor seems shady, won’t show you the property, or asks for cash, trust your instincts and move on.

Requests to wire funds via MoneyGram or Western Union. The surest sign of a scam is when you are asked to wire money to pay a security deposit, application fee, or first month’s rent. Even if they send you a contract, remember that wiring money is like giving someone cash––once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. Scammers will pressure you to wire them money by saying things like, “This won’t last,” or, “I have five people who want it, so you have to send me the money today.” They know that searching for a rental is time-consuming and stressful and hope that if you are in desperation mode, you will be easy to fool.

This is very common in hot rental markets like Boston, New York City, or San Francisco. Walk away from anyone who demands money or pressures you. It might not feel like it right now, but there are always plenty of apartments out there!

Requests for personal or financial information. Do not provide your bank account number or social security number to unknown entities.

Multiples. Before even calling or emailing about a listing or setting up a showing, make sure to do a search to see if the same ad might appear under a different name or city. This is a sure sign of a scam. You can also do a search on the owner.

Fake keys. Often times a scammer will say that they are out of the country and can’t show you the unit, but are happy to send the keys to you, to trick you into thinking they have a legitimate rental. It’s very easy to have some fake keys made up. Don’t let this lull you into a false sense of security.

If you do have to send a friend or family member to see the rental for you, and/or pay without meeting the landlord, make sure you use PayPal or your credit card––you’ll have recourse if you are scammed.

If you do fall victim to a rental scam you can file a complaint with the consumer protection agency, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357) or visiting the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Turkeychik.

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Heidi Daitch

Director, Strategic Programs at IdentityForce
Heidi is a busy working mom who juggles many of the same responsibilities and challenges at home and at work - a long list of things to do and not enough time to do everything. With so little time, Heidi tries hard to find simple, but effective strategies to save time for what’s really important – spending time with her family.
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