Fake real estate: How to avoid rental scams

Apartment hunting can be frustrating, and D.C. wants to help you save time and avoid a headache by making sure that too-good-to-be-true listing is legit.

Ben Wiseman, director of D.C.’s Office of Consumer Protection, an arm of the D.C. attorney general’s office, said that there are two types of common scams: the hijacked listing and the phantom rental.

In the hijacked listing, a scammer copies an advertisement for a rental using the same photos of the real ad and posts it to another location.

In this case, the scammer may even use the name of a reputable real estate agent, one who holds a license in D.C. But when the prospective renter calls, they are not getting the agent, but the scammer.

In the phantom rental, scammers simply copy and paste photos of a listing that is not at the address that is listed in the ad. It may be an old ad for a property that was previously sold or rented.

In both cases, the bogus agent may ask a consumer to wire money to them in order to hold the property. This sometimes includes asking for the first month’s rent and a deposit, even before the prospective renter gets a chance to see the property.

“We’ve seen these types of scams pop up before, where scammers attempt to lure renters with low rental prices or lavish amenities,” Wiseman said. “Once they have your attention, they try to get your money from you before you even get to see a place.”

Apartment hunters might assume that if the name of a real estate agent who is licensed in D.C. appears in an ad, then that agent is one and the same. But Wiseman said that is not a safe assumption. “We recommend people use a reputable broker, talk to people they know, and do their own research,” he said.

Here are some red flags to watch out for:

  • The listing agent asks you to wire money.
  • The agent won’t give you the address of the listing.
  • The agent won’t let you see the property before getting you to sign documents or send money.

Wiseman said that his office is also seeing an increase of phony ads for short-term rentals. His advice is the same: do your research and never, ever wire money.

“Buyers just need to beware of deals that seem too good to be true” Wiseman said.

For more information on rental scams, visit the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information.

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Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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