Imagine signing a lease for a new apartment, only to find out when you show up to move in that the place you selected, signed and paid for was a lie. Not only do you not have a place to live, but you’re out hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
This might sound like an urban legend, but unfortunately it happens all too often.
Just ask Kaeti Bancroft, owner of Metro Brokers in Littleton, Colorado. Upon arriving at a vacant rental property she owns to show it to a potential tenant, she found a woman storing things in the backyard shed. The stranger reported her granddaughter had just rented the place and was ready to move in after sending $500 for the first month’s rent.
But Bancroft hadn’t been a part of that deal.
“Somebody had taken the information and pictures (and) gone on Craigslist with all the information,” Bancroft says.
With just about every rental search beginning online these days, it’s a given that con artists will try to take advantage of eager consumers. Combine the fake listings with rental brokers looking to pull a bait-and-switch with a rental of lower quality or higher rent, and you’ll have a hard time believing which listings are real.
“You’re going about this search and, let’s say, half your time is being spent on this type of fake listing,” says Ori Goldman, CEO and co-founder of Loftey, an apartment rental agency in New York City. Goldman and his brothers launched the company in 2015 to try to combat the number of fake listings online, offer a service that’s free to consumers and help clients secure a rent reduction or free move.
The Federal Trade Commission warns consumers about rental listing scams as a common danger on its website, instructing individuals to report suspected scams to the site the listing was posted on, as well as local law enforcement and the FTC itself.
Major red flags for rental scams include:
— The listing photos have an MLS watermark.
— The listing details are vague.
— They don’t want to show you the place first.
— They’re ready to make a deal with no background info.
— They’re out of the country.
— They want you to sign before seeing anything.
— The asking rent doesn’t match up.
— They instruct you to wire money.
While active cons online can be reported, Goldman points out that little is being done to try to prevent predatory apartment listings from being posted online in the first place. “The problem is most of the listings aren’t real, and … this isn’t going anywhere,” he says. “No one — neither the (listing) website nor the state — no one’s policing this, and I don’t believe there’s anyone that’s going to be policing this.”
While some sites do confirm listing info with the original poster, sites that follow the Craigslist platform of allowing listings to be posted for free help foster an environment where fake listings may be more common than real listings. It falls to you as the renter to spot telltale signs of a rental scam. Here are eight red flags to look for in online rental listings that indicate a possible con.
The Listing Photos Have an MLS Watermark
If the rental listing’s photos sport a watermark — which is used to identify the owner of the photo — look closely. Scammers sometimes illegally pull photos from the local multiple listing service, where properties are listed for sale by real estate professionals. When a photo appears with an MLS watermark, the person who posted the rental doesn’t have the original photo because he or she isn’t actually associated with the property.
The Listing Details Are Vague
Not everyone is great at writing a rental description, but if basic details seem overly vague or don’t quite make sense, it’s probably because the person who posted the property has never been there. Omitting details on utilities or mentioning an attraction that’s more than a mile away as being within walking distance can be an indication that the poster isn’t familiar with the area or doesn’t expect you to be familiar with it.
For brokers looking to pull a bait-and-switch on a renter searching for a new home, Goldman says it’s common for them to avoid putting the exact address of the available apartment so the renter can’t spot the lie. “You don’t see exactly where it is — you just get a circle on a map, and then that’s an easy way for them to say, ‘Yeah, that’s a different building,'” he says.
They Don’t Want to Show You the Place First
If you reach out about an online rental listing and the responder doesn’t immediately discuss showing you the available space, consider it a telltale sign that he or she has no association with the property. This also goes for potential renters reaching out to small-time landlords. If they have no interest in learning more about the property or coming to see it first, it may be a scam.
They’re Ready to Make a Deal With No Background Info
You want a landlord or property manager who seeks reliable tenants. If someone claims to be ready to sign the lease with only email communication and no background on your financial stability, he or she is likely looking to get a one-time payment from you and may disappear before you move.
The FTC warns against adhering to requests for a security deposit or first month’s rent before you’ve signed the lease and met the landlord in person. You should never pay any amount beyond an application fee before you’ve confirmed the space is available, the individual you’re working with is associated with the property and you’ve signed a contract that makes you the legal tenant.
They’re “Out of the Country”
The reason many scammers give that they can’t meet with you in person is they’re temporarily out of the country. As the FTC reports on its website, scammers may even put in the effort to make it seem realistic: “It might even involve a lawyer or an ‘agent’ working on their behalf. Some scammers even create fake keys,” and send them to you in the mail.
They Want You to Sign Before Seeing Anything
To avoid brokers looking to trick you into paying them a fee for an apartment they falsely advertised, don’t agree to sign anything before you’ve seen the place that was promised.
Goldman says these brokers will have you sign a contract that states you owe a finder’s fee for any apartment they show you that you choose to rent. You may end up liking the place, but it probably wasn’t the place you wanted originally. “Just in general, you’re there under false pretenses,” he says.
The Asking Rent Doesn’t Match Up
Con artists and shady brokers will hook many victims with the promise of a rent that can almost seem too good to be true. “That stuff is just all over everywhere,” Bancroft says.
If you’re looking at rentals in a certain neighborhood and spot one for a few hundred dollars less than the rest, proceed cautiously. Chances are it’s either a fake listing or a fake rental rate to try to draw you in.
They Instruct You to Wire Money
Nigerian prince or not, any request for you to wire the security deposit or first month’s rent is the clearest sign of a scam. Once the money has been collected, there’s no way for you to get it back, and the person you thought you were in contact with can easily disappear.
Since Bancroft’s experience with rental fraud, she says she’s found renters have grown more cautious. “They’re not so anxious just to send their $500 off to some place in Texas,” she says.
But don’t think you’ve outsmarted all possible fraudsters, Bancroft warns. More careful renters means con artists will only try harder to trick you.
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Update 02/22/19: This story was originally published on Dec. 6, 2017, and has been updated with new information.