Rental scams have exploded in recent years, typically preying on vacationers looking for a week or two of R&R — only to get a “ruse” and “ripoff” in paying upfront for unavailable properties that don’t exist, are actually for sale (not rent), or are currently occupied. But there’s a more sinister — and troublesome — result of this shelter skelter: identity theft when apartment hunting online.
It starts with similar bait: Bogus advertisements for desirable rentals at affordable, if not bargain, prices aimed at attracting college students, relocating or downsizing adults, or retiree-aged snowbirds looking for a few months of warm weather.
The gotcha comes when you respond to these online ads — typically posted on Craigslist but sometime in newspaper classifieds, online chat boards or scammer-run websites.
You’re asked to submit an application for a “background check” or other reason that requires personal information such as your Social Security number and/or bank account or credit card accounts — everything an identity thief needs to make fraudulent charges on your dime or open new accounts in your name.
The biggest red flag your “landlord” may be a crook: Such requests come before you see the rental — typically by email but sometimes by telephone.
Another faceless clue to a con: A request to send “deposit” or “first-month” payments upfront, especially by wire transfer or with a prepaid debit card.
Here’s why: Sometimes scammers write convincing text but often simply steal it from legitimate listings — along with photos gleaned from authentic real estate websites. They may even use real names of agencies and real estate agents to give their ruse more legitimacy.
How to Protect Yourself
Here are some tips to protect yourself when searching for an apartment (or other rental) online.
Let Google be your guide. Obviously, you want to see prospective shelter in person before providing money or personal information. But if you can’t do that, and don’t know a local who can check out the property on your behalf, do an online search of:
- The address to determine if the property really exists (scammers may simply invent of phony address), if it’s for sale (noted by listing at multiple listing websites) and/or if it’s a residential property — and not a business. Clicking the “Maps” tab provides an aerial view, allowing for a close-up view of what is at that location, if it exists.
- The owner’s or listing agent’s name and contact information. This search may reveal if similar ads have been placed in other cities, indicating a scam.
- It’s also wise to cut-and-paste chunks of descriptive text in the ad to determine if it’s been copied from elsewhere, since fraudsters often copy real ads and just lower the price to dupe prospective renters.
An out-of-town landlord? Run for the hills — or at least, to another rental. Owners who claim they can’t “show” you the rental because they’re traveling on business or whatever are usually scammers who may be overseas. But personal information gleaned from your background check can be nefariously used anywhere.
Deal in person … or at least by phone. There’s no guarantee that rental ripoff artists aren’t using a “pay-as-you-go” cellphone (often tossed in a month or so), but avoid those who only want to communicate by email — especially when claiming to be realtors who use free Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail accounts versus accounts that note an agency name. At the very least, talking — again, ideally in person — is also better for getting specifics about the property than can be ignored via email.
Authenticate rental contacts. If dealing with people who say they’re the owners, ask for proof of ownership — and their identities by asking for a copy of a driver’s license that can be cross-checked with the recorder of deeds or assessor’s office where the rental is located. (For most areas, you can do this online.) You can also order detailed reports about landlords and properties at CheckYourLandlord.com.
If you’re dealing with a manager or agent, ask for proof that the person has a right to sign a lease on behalf of the owner, and check the information with the owner. If dealing with a real estate agent, search for the person’s name at the Association of Real Estate License Law Officials or contact the licensing office in the agent’s state. To find that office, type “(name of state) real estate licensing” into a search engine. Keep in mind that scammers may steal the names of legit agents, so make contact by looking up their claimed agency’s phone number yourself, rather than using a number the person provides.
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