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Online scams are so prevalent that nobody is surprised by them anymore. Threats lurk around every corner and we, as regular Internet users, have grown so accustomed to them that we just shrug our shoulders and move on. It’s kind of sad, isn’t it?
Seriously, no place is safe. Facebook scams have been popular for a while and gamers have had to deal with Steam scams over the past few years. And then there are eBay scams, which tend to be in a class of their own in terms of how scummy they are.
But one of the more recent trends in Scam City appears to be the Apartment Rental Scam. More and more people are finding their next place to live through online services, and scammers have learned to take advantage yet again.
Don’t become the next victim. Here’s what you need to look out for.
Way Too Good to Be True
If you’re searching for a new pad online, there’s one truth that you must make peace with: rent is going to be a big chunk of your monthly budget. You get what you pay for and there’s just no way around it — which is why “too good to be true” listings should always be a red flag.
Great photos? Awesome. Great location? Even better. Great price? Now we’re stepping into suspicious territory. That last point — affordability — is the real clincher, as scammers often use impossibly low price points to attract as many potential victims as possible.
Another manifestation of “too good to be true” is the promise of no credit or background checks. Most reputable property managers want to make sure that their tenants are respectable to a degree, so it’s rare that they will forego the checking process except on a case-by-case basis.
As a renter, you may be thrilled to skip the inconvenience of a credit and background check (especially because they usually require some kind of fee on your part), and that’s why scammers love to throw this in the listing: because it entices people to act fast without thinking.
The same holds true if the listing promises no lease signings. No reputable property manager is going to rent out an apartment without a lease!
What You Should Do: If it sounds too good to be true, walk away. Sure, a few of those listings might actually be legitimate, but you’ll be dodging hundreds of scam listings in the process. The odds are stacked against you and the safest option is to not play that game.
Missing Photos and Poor Grammar
Whether you’re searching on Craigslist, Trulia, Zillow, or any number of other apartment search engines, you should be wary of any listings that have horrible grammar and/or lack photos.
Think about it from their perspective. If you’re putting up an apartment for rent, wouldn’t you want to show what it looks like? There are two situations where you might not want to: 1) the apartment is in terrible condition or 2) the apartment doesn’t exist.
Neither is good news for you, the renter.
To be clear, I’m not saying that low quality photos imply a low quality apartment. Low quality photos are fine, but missing photos are not. Any reputable landlord will put in the effort to take and post up a few photos at least.
As for bad grammar, it usually indicates that the listing was computer-generated (similar to the way spam emails are) or posted by someone overseas, like a scammer from a third-world region. It’s the same kind of red flag that you might use to discern between fake online reviews.
What You Should Do: If the listing is missing photos, you can ask the lister to take a few and send them to you. If you’re really suspicious, ask them to include a shot where they’re holding a piece of paper with your email address on it (to confirm that they aren’t pulling random photos from the web).
If they have poor grammar and spelling, tread carefully. It’s possible that they are legitimate so don’t brush them off outright, but do keep your eyes open for further red flags.
Disreputable Credit Checking Services
I recently made an inquiry about an apartment listing. The listing itself was a bit skeptical from the start, but it wasn’t too bad so I shot the lister an email for more information. Here’s what I got in return:
Notice that they promise to give me what I want (a tour of the place) as long as I give them what they want first (an innocent credit check). This is a big scam lately and you should be on alert for it.
It works like this: they link you to a non-reputable credit score website (in my case, I’ve been linked to both efreescore.com and creditupdates.com) which will give you your credit report for $1. Most credit check fees for apartment listings cost between $10 and $50, so this feels like a deal.
What ends up happening is that you enter your credit card information (to pay the $1), but the service charges way more (usually around $30). Some people find success in disputing the charge, but it’s a lengthy and frustrating process because the service ignores nearly every attempt to establish communication.
What You Should Do: Use multiple web tools to check if links are safe before you click on anything, especially if those links appear in an email. In fact, the ideal case is that you should never click on links in an email.
If the landlord wants you to use a particular checking service and you feel skeptical about it, ask them for an alternative. If they don’t have one, offer one yourself. Before using a service, search the web to see if others have used it to their satisfaction. Include “scam” or “fraud” in your query for best results.
Reluctant to Meet or Give Address
Every once in a while, you’ll run into an apartment listing that doesn’t actually include the location of the apartment. These shady listings might mention zip codes or nearby landmarks, maybe even a street intersection, but never the full address.
This is a huge red flag.
The reasoning behind this is quite predictable: “We used to include addresses but our units ended up being vandalized, so we stopped.” I’m not saying that this never happens, but it’s rare enough. After all, how many people browse Craigslist for the sole purpose of vandalizing vacant units?
The truth is, they can’t list an address because they don’t have an apartment to sell. Furthermore, if you ask to meet them in person, they’ll give one of a million reasons why they can’t. The lack of an address plus an unwillingness to meet is basically a megaphone shouting “SCAM! SCAM! SCAM!”
How is this a scam? Usually they’ll ask you to send in an application fee to “show that you’re serious”, and then they’ll cease communications.
What You Should Do: If you have to send in any amount of money before they’re willing to tell you the address or meet in person, give up and move on. There’s nothing else you can do.
Middleman for the Landlord
When hunting for apartments, one of the first things you should always do is get the name and contact information for the landlord and the property owner (if they’re different people). This is important for a few reasons.
But for now, it’s important to realize that the lister is not always the property manager. They could be a family member, a friend, a real estate agent, etc. If this is the case, ask for the property manager’s details even if you’re mainly going to be dealing with the lister.
For one, you can look through your local area’s property records to see if the given manager’s information matches the person who actually owns the building. If there’s a mismatch, it’s likely that the lister is trying to sell you a unit that they can’t actually sell.
But an even bigger red flag is if the lister tries to avoid giving you the landlord’s details. Maybe they’re “away on vacation” or “overseas for business”. Either way, they’ll try to force you into working with them and them only.
What You Should Do: Always look up property details to look for inconsistencies. If the landlord’s details are hard to come by, you should walk away and not look back.
After all, even if the landlord is actually away on business or vacation, it’s a sign of things to come. Do you want to rent a place from someone who’s hard to reach and handles issues through a middleman? That will just lead to a bunch of separate but equally aggravating problems down the line.
The Security Deposit Thief
If you fall for this last scam, you’re going to be in a world of hurt. While other apartment scams might only rip you off for between $30 to $100, falling for this one could drain a few thousand dollars from your bank account.
The scam works like this: someone with physical access to an apartment unit (e.g. the current tenant) will list it as vacant. The photos look nice, the location is great, and the price is reasonable. Dozens of people inquire about it, asking for tours, etc.
What ends up happening is that the lister agrees to rent the apartment to everyone who inquired. He asks for a three-month upfront deposit (first month, last month, and security) from everyone, and once all of that money is deposited into his bank account, he packs his things and skips town.
Everyone else is left in bewilderment.
What You Should Do: Again, make sure you check your local area’s property records to make sure that the person you’re dealing with is actually the manager of the property.
Furthermore, ask the lister for valid identification (e.g. driver’s license) and memorize or record as much of that information as you can. That way, if they do defraud you, you’ll have somewhere to start when seeking recourse.
Apartment Hunting Isn’t Easy!
These scams are everywhere, though they’re especially rampant on Craigslist (which is no surprise when you consider how many Craigslist scams are out there). The good news is that avoiding them is easy once you know what to spot, so keep your eyes open and don’t let your guard down.
Have you ever been scammed while looking for an apartment? What other signs should we treat as red flags? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!