7 Ways to Detect an Apartment Rental Listing Scam
by Pete Elvin
Looking for a rental property is oftentimes a time-consuming, emotional experience. After all, the property you choose to rent is where you’ll likely live for a year or more. You’ll also be spending a lot of your hard-earned money on rent, so your goal is to find the best place possible for as little money as possible.
Whenever significant money and emotions are involved, we can become easy targets for scams. Unfortunately, there are individuals who take advantage of this. There are many sophisticated schemes specifically intended for renters looking for rental properties. Craigslist rental scams are prevalent, but scams exist on every online rental listings site.
We want to make finding a quality rental property as stress-free as possible, so we’ve developed a list of 7 tips for detecting apartment rental scams. Avoid becoming a victim of a scam by reading Rentalutions’ tips on how to spot a scam.
The Price is Too Good
Whenever you see a price that looks too good to be true, it probably is. A property that is priced below the going market rate in your area should be an immediate red flag.
How can you determine fair market value?
- Do your own research into market rent amounts in the area that you’re looking. To understand what market rates are, you should look at properties that are comparable in location, size and amenities. You can look at listings for available properties on sites like Hotpads, Craigslist, and Padmapper.
- Look at the Zillow Rent Zestimate for the property that you’re interested in. The easiest way to find the Rent Zestimate is by typing the property address into Zillow. For most properties, Zillow will display an estimated monthly rent price for your target property.
While an asking rent amount below market is a sign of potential fraud, it doesn’t mean that the listing is definitely fraudulent. Keep in mind that the property owner may not know the true fair market rent rate, he or she might be renting the unit in off-peak season, or the unit is flawed in some way (near a noisy highway, for example).
If the rent amount appears in-line with the market, you also can’t immediately assume that the property is not a scam. Scammers are becoming smarter, and now recognize that pricing too far below market is a red flag and have adjusted prices to be closer to market rates. Keep reading below to learn about the other ways to detect rental scams.
Scammers want to get your money quickly and then move on to the next victim. As a result, they typically always advertise the property as available immediately. If a property is listed as being available immediately, it should be a sign that something is up. The listing is either a scam, the landlord is unorganized, or a tenant moved out unexpectedly. Let’s consider each of these scenarios:
It’s a scam
If you are in an unfortunate position of needing a place immediately, be extra careful. Properties that are available right away are likely either scams or the sign of a disorganized landlord. Thoroughly investigate the property by seeing the unit in person, asking a lot of questions, speaking with previous tenants, and stop considering the unit if you notice any signs of shady behavior.
Great landlords, like the ones who use Rentalutions to manage their properties, almost never wait until the last minute to rent their properties. Most rental laws allow landlords to begin advertising rental properties to new tenants 60 days before a lease expires if the existing tenant is not renewing the lease. While this scenario is good because it means the listing isn’t a scam, it should make you think about the situation for different reasons. Do you want to rent from a disorganized landlord who puts things off until the last minute? If the owner procrastinates on listing a property, which might impact his bottom line, you should question how responsive he’ll be to things that impact you (like maintenance issues).
Tenant moved out unexpectedly
Occasionally things happen that cause tenants to move out unexpectedly. Tenants could be forced to move because of a job, their inability to pay the monthly rent or because they were convicted of a crime. In all of these cases, the owner of the property will do everything possible to rent the property to maximize his or her rental income. These scenarios don’t indicate a rental scam and you should ask questions and consider the situation on a case-by-case basis.
For the reasons mentioned above, a property that’s available immediately should always be a red flag and cause you to ask questions. In our experience, high-quality, legitimate landlords keep their properties full at all times and don’t typically have properties available for immediate occupancy.
Typos, Poor Grammar & Excessive Punctuation
Most online rental listings scams are conducted by individuals outside the United States. For most of these people, English is not their first language. If you come across a rental listing that is full of typos, poor grammar, and excessive punctuation, it was likely created by a scammer.
“Wire me the money, and I’ll mail you the keys”
Most scammers provide victims with a story about being overseas for work, to care for an ill relative or for missionary work. Because they are overseas, you will be instructed to wire the money to them with a promise that they will mail you the keys to the property. You should never wire money to anyone you meet online. If anyone you meet online asks you to wire him or her money, report the listing as fraudulent and cease all communications.
Inability to Show the Interior
In most rental scams, the individual advertising the property doesn’t actually have any way to access the inside of the property. If a landlord instructs you to inspect the property by walking around the outside at your convenience, this is almost certainly a scam.
No Screening Process
As a tenant, you want to rent from a high-quality, responsive landlord who does things the “right” way. Great landlords always have a set screening process that they follow to ensure that they choose great tenants. If a landlord does not require a rental application and credit check, you should consider this to be a red flag. The landlord is either unconcerned about picking great tenants because it’s a scam, or unconcerned because he or she is uncertain how to be a good landlord. In both scenarios, you should be a bit suspicious.
Trust Your Instincts
Our final tip for determining whether a rental listing is a scam is to simply trust your instincts. If the situation doesn’t “feel” right, there’s likely something to be concerned about. In almost every situation where we’ve spoken with victims after the fact, they all admit that they ignored red flags and didn’t follow their gut. Renting a property is an emotional, high-stress endeavor. It can be easy to ignore obvious warning signs, but you should pay attention to your instincts.
What to Do if You’re Still Unsure
If you’re unsure about whether a listing is legitimate or not, there are two things that you must do. First, protect yourself and your own personal information. If a listing is possibly a scam, you shouldn’t give out any of your own personal information. Anything that you provide could be used to help the individual steal your identity.
Second, you need to do a lot of research into the property and the individual advertising the property. Fortunately, it is now possible to research the ownership of most properties in the United States online. You can typically find ownership information by searching the city or county website where the property is located.
Once you find out who owns the property, you can begin looking into the person advertising the property. Are you certain that he or she is the owner of the property? If the individual has ever used a different name when contacting you, beware. Also, be alert for potential warning signs when communicating through email. If the owner claims that his name is “Charles Johnson” to match the property records, but his email is “firstname.lastname@example.org”, something may be awry.
If the individual advertising the property claims to be working on behalf of the owner, either as a manager or broker, you’ll again want to do a bit more digging. Does the manager or broker have the necessary licenses to be engaging in these activities?
What to Do if You Spot a Scam
If you believe that you’ve spotted a rental scam, please flag the listing as a scam. Flagging the listing as a scam will help protect other tenants who may look at the same property. If you have already been an unfortunate victim of a rental scam, please notify your local police department. This will help law enforcement agencies catch the individuals responsible for these schemes.
At Rentalutions, we are committed to increasing the transparency and safety in the rental market. All landlords using our system undergo an identity verification process to ensure that they are real people. If you rent from a landlord who uses Rentalutions, you know that he or she follows best practices with their rental properties.
If you are a tenant looking for a rental property, you can check out rental property listings page. You can also learn more about the benefits for tenants of using Rentalutions and create a free tenant account.