Look before you lease: how to avoid a rental scam

Tips By April Payne July 31, 2019

Whether you’re searching for an off-campus apartment, moving to a new city or just looking for a change of scenery in a different neighborhood, be on the lookout for the red flags indicating a rental scam.

Here’s how the rental scam plays out

A scam artist finds a vacant real estate listing or just an appealing-looking property someone else is already living in. The scammer then advertises the rental property — an apartment, house or room — online, often on a free classified website.

What really stands out about their listing is that it is often offered at an incredibly affordable price. It’s substantially cheaper than comparable properties in the area, which may not seem entirely unreasonable if you’re in a competitive market. The pictures look great and the listing might even include an image of the floor plan to give you a better sense of what the home is like.

The listing will often offer every amenity that you’ve been searching for. New hardwood floors? Check. Quartz counter tops? Check. A beautiful house with a spacious yard and the landlord handles mowing and snow removal? Check. Or perhaps high-rise apartment building in the heart of downtown that even has a rooftop pool? Check and check.

Everything appears legitimate — no misspellings, grammatical errors or anything else that would make you pause or second-guess the ad.

Naturally, you’re interested in the property, so you reach out to the person posting the ad and say you’d like to see the listing. You might get a friendly response that says something along the lines of “I’d love to show you the space; however, the space belongs to my ill mother who I am currently getting settled into my home across the country so I won’t be able to show you the unit.” This is a red flag, as a legitimate landlord or property manager will be willing to arrange for someone to meet you and show you the inside of the property.

Another red flag is that before they can show you the property, they say that they need to verify whether you have the funds available for the rent. If the landlord wants a higher security deposit than what’s normal, or if upfront fees seem excessive, it could be a sign of a rental scam.

Legitimate landlords will usually want to know your credit score or do a criminal background check and employment verification. If a landlord doesn’t seem interested in any form of tenant screening or appears too eager to negotiate the rent and other lease terms with you, think twice.

Scam artists also target travelers researching vacation rentals, students looking for off-campus housing or even service members who frequently relocate.

The photos, the amenities and the price all seem spectacular. Think this rental is almost too good to be true? That’s because is probably is. Don’t let a scammer pressure you into sending money to hold this “perfect” home.

What you can do to avoid a rental scam

Do your research. Investigate the company that has the property listed for rent. If dealing with an individual, make sure he or she is truly the property owner. Scammers often take information from real estate listings to produce phony rental listings. If you are moving to a new city, send a friend to drive by the rental. Scammers often target people moving to new cities and list units that don’t even have a real address.

There is never a reason to send money without viewing the rental or meeting in person, especially if the request is for a money transfer.

Whatever situation you’re in, keep these tips in mind:

  • Never pay for a property you found on a classified posting using a money transfer.
  • Avoid any listing that pressures you or requires you to act immediately.
  • Watch for poorly written correspondence or advertisements that contain misspellings, improper use of language or unusual formatting.
  • Never provide personal identifying information to an unknown individual or entity, especially to persons who respond solely through email.
  • Never send a money transfer to someone you haven’t met in person.
  • If you are moving to a new city and must rent sight unseen, send a friend or colleague to visit the rental property for you before sending any money.

More information on scams and how to protect yourself is available at the Western Union Consumer Protection Center.

Learn more about preventing fraud: How to assist seniors in fighting fraud