Finding a new home is tough, especially in the current market. Looking for a new place is time consuming, frustrating and often emotionally fraught. After all, you plan to spend a significant amount of time and money to be there. You want it to be safe, clean and yet as cheap as possible. So, with emotions running high and often a deadline to move (you’ve already given notice or your lease is nearly up), predators see a target-rich environment in the rental market. Don’t let yourself get scammed!
Every year we are contacted by more and more prospective tenants who have seen our property advertised for far less than it really rents for or who have been asked to send money to some random third party who is trying to use our listing to scam them. While we work incredibly hard to keep bogus listings off rental sites, it really is a game of whack-a-mole.
So, how can you tell if a listing is legitimate? First, you really do need to do a little research on your own to understand the local rental market. Spend some time on rental sites like Zillow, Hotpads, Padmapper and even Craigslist, and look at the prices of properties that are in the same area, are the same size and have similar amenities. Understand that a place with a private garage should cost a little more than one with street parking, and a place with a window air conditioner should cost less than one with central AC. Once you have done that, you should check any property you are considering for the Zillow.com Rent Zestimate. While the Zestimate isn’ t any sort of actual price, it can give you some a baseline to work with.
Once you have an idea of what a property should be priced, your first clue that a posting you see is a scam is if the price is too good to be true. An asking rent that is significantly below market rates should lead you to start asking questions. Alone, it isn’t a definite sign of a fraudulent listing. It could indicate that it is being rented during an off-peak period (close to the holidays) or that there is some flaw in the property (it is next to a noisy freeway). But it is definitely a red flag.
So, what else should you be looking at to determine whether or not it is a scam? The first thing to do is to check competing websites and compare the same property for other listings. If you find it on Rentals.com, check Zillow and Craigslist. It is vital you check multiple sites because many are owned by the same companies and are simply using the same data. By checking several sites (and it is smart to check the About Us page to see if they are all owned by different companies), you have a better chance of finding whether or not there is another price listed for the same property. You should also check for different contact information. If you find that listings on different websites have different phone numbers, names or emails, one of them is probably fraudulent.
Perhaps the most obvious sign that the listing is a scam is when the landlord can’t or won’t show you the interior. If a landlord asks you to inspect the property by walking around the outside, then it is probably because there is no way for them to show you the inside. It is almost certainly a scam.
The majority of these online rental scams are done by individuals or groups outside the United States. For this reason, English is rarely their first language. If you find that the listing is full of typos or bad grammar, this should also be a red flag. Often to avoid this problem, scammers these days are simply copying the legitimate listing text and using that in the set up. The tell-tale then is in the quality of their email reply. If the writing seems stilted or grammatically off, then this should definitely give you pause.
If the landlord tells you they are living overseas or out of state for work, or to tend a sick relative, or (one of my favorites) for missionary work and they are renting it long distance, it is probably a scam. The scammer will instruct you to wire them the deposit, and they will send you the keys. You should absolutely NEVER wire money to someone you meet online. If anyone you meet online as part of your housing search asks you to send them money, but they are unwilling to meet you in person and show you the interior of the house, you should report the listing as fraudulent and cease all communications with him or her.
As a tenant, you want to rent from a well-organized, high-quality landlord who does things the right way and cares about who is living in his or her property. Great landlords have an established screening process and carefully vet all their applicants. So, if a landlord isn’t asking you to fill out a n application and to consent to a credit check, then the landlord either doesn’t know what he is doing, doesn’t care about finding great tenants, or it is a scam. Any of these should worry you.