We are right smack in the middle of moving season. Leases are ending and starting; U-Haul vans and boxes are hot commodities; IKEA and The Home Depot are packed. And scammers are busy at work reeling in victims all over the country with fake rental listings (some of which, just to complicate matters, are not completely fake).
The latest numbers from the FBI show more than 11,000 people losing over $350 million due to rental scams in 2021, with many more suspected to go unreported. Last month, Pennsylvania’s Attorney General put out a warning for people looking for their next rental: Scammers are taking real listings and altering them in an attempt to gain personal information (and money) from people. But the scam isn’t limited to the state of Pennsylvania.
How does the fake rental listing scam work?
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Scammers will take real rental listing ads from rental companies or real estate listings and change the contact information so that it’s them you are contacting instead. (Some scammers even hack into the realtor’s email account). Another common strategy is to post an ad for a property that is no longer on the market.
Scammers will then string you along the “application process,” collecting your personal information, security deposit, and first and last month’s rent.
A similar scam that happens regularly during this season targets vacation rental listings. Florida’s attorney general warned about scammers posting fake vacation rental listings scraped from the internet and posted on Airbnb and Vrbo. They collect an application fee or security deposit and then disappear.
Red flags for rental scams
If any of these red flags come up on your next rental search, walk away:
- They ask you to pay with peer-to-peer digital payment services: Landlords might use PayPal and similar apps to collect their rent, but they’ll generally only do that once a relationship is established. If you’ve never met the landlord before (in person), paying with a peer-to-peer (P2P) app like Zelle, Venmo, or CashApp is a big risk. Wiring money is equally as dangerous—once you send it, there’s no way to get it back. One possible solution is to use PayPal’s “goods and services”payment option, which, unlike “friends and family,” does give you protection if you get scammed.
- You are asked to pay a deposit or first month’s rent before you get a lease or tour the property: If you’re being rushed to pay without getting a lease or touring your new potential place, it might be there is no lease or physical apartment for rent. The scammer might rush you into paying to “secure” the very “on demand” rental. It’s not true. Walk away.
- Listings are not consistent: It’s rare for a property to be listed in just one website, so it’s worth it to check for the listing you’re interested in on sites like Zillow, Apartments.com, Redfin, etc. If the information, such as the listing agent’s contact info, price, or address is not consistent, you might be looking at a fake listing. Another strategy is to reverse image search the listing pictures to find where else (or when) were the pictures posted.
- Last-minute changes: The landlord is out of town; someone had a medical emergency; a last-minute change means you’ll be dealing with someone else to finalize the lease and get your keys. These are all red flags. Scammers are also known to make fake keys and send them to you to gain your trust (keys are cheap to make, and mean very little on their own).
- Listing details are vague: Great location and even better price, but there is no mention of utilities and there are more pictures of what’s in walking distance than the property itself? This could mean the listing is fake and the scammer is not even in the area and posting generic information.
- They make it too easy: If there is no background check on your financial stability, no phone call or attempt to meet in person, they’re not looking for a long-term tenant, but a one-time payment.
How to avoid falling victim to a rental scam
There are things you can do to avoid being a victim of a rental scam:
- Research the landlord on Google and check that they live in the area.
- Verify the address and make sure ithe nformation is consistent.
- Look at Google’s street view and make sure images match the ones listed.
- Visit the rental location and tour the inside.
- Meet in person with the listing agent or landlord.
- Use a real estate agent to be sure you’re not getting scammed.
How to report a rental scam
If you do happen to find yourself the victim of a rental scam, report it to your local law enforcement agency and the Federal Trade Commission. Contact the website where the ad was posted and let them know the listing is a scam. If you paid with a credit card or PayPal’s goods and services option, you can get your money back. Also, contact the bank that you used to pay and let them know of the fraud and follow their instructions.