In the age of technology, people can easily search for apartments and rental homes online and apply without setting foot into the new apartment. Although searching online for apartments offers convenience and efficiency in finding a perfect place, if apartment hunters are not careful they can find themselves at the mercy of scammers, fraudsters, and spammers. Being aware of the red flags and knowing how to double check for the legitimacy of an apartment can save you time, money, and give you peace of mind.
Common frauds and scams:
The price bait scam involves lowering the online price of an apartment listing to reel in unsuspecting victims. These listings are “too good to be true,” and often times lowered half the actual listing price. Scam artists will find a legitimate property listing, copy it and repost it with a much lower rental price. Sometimes new listings are simply created, but either way the listing will always be much cheaper than apartments of the listing’s size and quality.
After an apartment hunter finds the listing and contacts the phony landlord, the scammer will use one of several ways to steal their money. Generally, the scammer will ask for a check to be mailed to him or her, ask for a money wire payment, or even a MoneyGram payment.
If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. If the apartment listing looks a lot cheaper than those around it, do some research to see if it may be a fraudulent listing. There are free online tools you can use to see how much rent should actually be in an area, and you can always search for apartments in the area to gauge what rent is in the general area.
If you find that everything appears legitimate, you should meet the landlord or owner in person, and look at the lease before signing a check. You can also search through your county’s tax assessment website to see who owns the building, just to be safe.
This fraud often uses a price bait scam to get apartment hunters interested, but it also has another twist. The scammer will express that he or she is living overseas, is soon moving overseas, or for any other reason would need you to send money to a difference country. Sometimes the scammer will tell victims that he is in a rush to get rid of the apartment, as he needs to move overseas in a hurry and will be happy to rent the apartment out at a much cheaper rate.
Often times the apartment listing is completely fabricated, but sometimes the scam is done using existing listings which are copied and reposted at a lower rate. The scammer will take the money sent to him via Western Union or a check, and the apartment listing will disappear along with your money.
Never try to rent an apartment where the owner or landlord lives overseas. At best you will rent an apartment where you can never reach a landlord about issues with the apartment. At worst, you will have hundreds to thousands of dollars stolen from you. Be careful of awkwardly worded emails that may have been written in broken English, and always be wary of strange requests. This is another type of scam that can usually be exposed by searching through your county’s public tax assessment records to see who actually owns the apartment. If the apartment does not show up, or if it is owned by someone else, report it immediately.
MoneyGram is a global payment system that is available in more than 190 countries, and is used for fast and efficient money transferring. Scammers have found a way to use this service by asking apartment hunters to prove they can pay for rent by providing a MoneyGram receipt. The victims of this type of fraud feel safe enough to send money to a friend and simply email or fax the receipt to a landlord, but in this case the scammer can actually take the receipt and use it to pull the money out of any of the 190 countries that host MoneyGram services. Since money can be extracted anywhere at any time, MoneyGram can be very convenient for rental scammers, and should be avoided when possible.
If you are searching for an apartment, do not use MoneyGram to transfer funds. If the landlord is looking for confidence that you make enough to pay for rent, ask for a reputable tenant screening service. Screenings cost around $15, and some landlords require future tenants to handle the bill, but it is much cheaper than losing a security deposit or entire rent check to a scammer.
A security deposit scam involves any sort of rental fraud where the supposed landlord asks for a security deposit to hold the apartment, takes the money, and disappears. This may be one of the most common types of rental scams, as it is relatively easy for the scammer.
This can also take the form of an unscrupulous landlord simply keeping the security deposit at the end of your lease. Security deposits are intended to be used for repairs, and it is fraudulent to for a landlord to keep them for his own purposes.
Since this scam requires you to send someone a check directly, you should make sure the landlord or owner is who he says he is. Meet them in person before signing a lease or handing over any money. Look at the apartment to make sure it exists, and that it is the same as the description in the listing. Finally, look up the owner of the building using your county’s tax assessment website. You should be able to contact the owner this way if you believe something is off. If it is not owned by the person asking for a security deposit, report them immediately.
You may also be able to speak with the previous (or current tenants, if they have not yet left the apartment) and ask them about the landlord. If the landlord belongs to an association, feel free to call them and politely inquire about any issues or complaints the landlord may have received.
In a foreclosure scam property is rented out while it is in the process of being foreclosed, or will be in the future. This can get complicated as it is not always an untrustworthy landlord who scams unwitting tenants, but sometimes a third party, or simply a scammer who has come across a foreclosed rental home. Tenants residing in a foreclosure will eventually receive a visit from a bank officer and can get into serious trouble for trespassing on a bank’s property. Perhaps the worst issue with this type of scam is that the victim will be paying for rent while they are staying there, and could be doing so for months before being made aware of the situation.
Since this type of scam is somewhat more complicated than others, preventing it can be somewhat more difficult. Finding the property’s information through your county’s tax assessment site will give insight into when the last time the property has been sold, for how much, and to whom. If this does not match the landlord’s story, report it. If it does match, you can also ask a realtor to look into the information for you, or take the information directly to a lawyer or legal aid. Another alternative is to be cautious of any bizarre requests from a landowner, such as request for rent to be paid in cash.
Defective Premises Fraud:
This type of fraud is not always illegal, and so falls in the gray area of scamming. However, hosting defective premises which are hazardous is illegal and can be taken care of. This includes significant water damage, mold, holes, defective railings, and anything that could be considered life threatening. Renting an apartment and finding the surroundings to be subpar can be a nightmare if you are locked into a lease, but it can also be easily avoidable.
Look at the apartment before signing a lease. Go through each room, try the lights, use the faucets, and try to inspect anything you feel might not function properly. Any hazardous surroundings should be covered by your states consumer fraud statues, which will most likely not cover minor things such as stains or holes. If you are worried about a hazardous issue in your apartment, send a written notice to your landlord. If the issues are not addressed, contact your local, state, or federal health or housing authorities, and/or the Health Department.
Identity theft via rental applications are not new, but they can still be very frightening and painful. This is another scam that can be easy to avoid, and since its consequences can be severe, it is a good one to be cautious of. Identity theft can happen when apartment hunters fill in information for a credit check or renters application. Sometimes owners ask for a lot of personal information, and sometimes that information can be used to steal identities.
Do not give out your personal information to just anyone. If you are renting from a development association or bank, you may be asked to fill a larger application which may ask for several pieces of information. If you are not comfortable with adding your bank information, birthdate, or social security number, feel free to move on to the next apartment. You can also often omit certain information, or ask for an alternative processes. If the landlord asks for your banking information to make sure you can handle the rent, ask him if he would consider using a reputable tenant screening company.
General Safety Tips:
- Personally meet with the landlord or owner before signing a lease.
- Visit and inspect the apartment for any damages, defects, or hazardous surroundings.
- Search for the owner of the building using your state and county’s public records, generally through the county tax assessment website. If this does not match up with the landlord, try and contact the owners of the building for clarification.
- If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Use a rental comparison site to find out how much rent in the area should be, or use an apartment searching site to find how much neighboring apartments charge for rent.
- Do not deal with overseas landlords. The chances of it being a scam are much higher.
- Deal locally to avoid false listings and sub-par apartments.
- Be very careful when sending payments using Western Union or MoneyGram, or cash. It is much safer to only send money locally and with checks.
- Read the entire lease. Do not send a check without looking at the apartment, without having signed a lease, and without having met the landlord.
- Be aware of emails written in poor English to avoid overseas scams.
10. Do not give out personal information such as your social security number, bank account information, or credit card information. If you are required to do so, ask if you would be able to omit some information, or use a reputable tenant screening service.