There is so 100% certain way, so always be careful. Unless you meet them in person at the house, check their ID and verify the public records for the property ownership, be careful. If the deal seems too good to be true, be suspicious. If they want you to send them money for keys, be suspicious.
Probably the safest way to find a legitimate rental is to use an agent. While even we can be fooled, we have more tools at our disposal to protect your interests.
I hope this helped.
The scammer finds an ad for a house for sale in Craigs list or the multiple listings. Goes to the house to check if it is vacant. If it is, he/she puts in an ad in Craigslist for a rental at a low price and easy terms.
Then quickly break the brokers keybox to smithereens or bust the lock up and installs a new lock from the hardware store. The tenant comes by to look (the real estate sign has been tossed in the bushes) likes the place and the rental is agreed. The tenant pays rent and deposit and gets the key. The rental agreement is signed and the scammer says she will have to go make copies and will come back later. Funny, he/she never comes back.
So after paying rent and signing a contract the tenant will still be told by the sheriff to be out in an hour. How long it takes before that happens only depends on when the rightful owner, or their agent, finds out about this. Having no contract in your hand, possibly only a handwritten receipt for your money, will make you a squatter with no rights.
It happened to my house.
Getting in to see the inside gives you no indication of who is the rightful owner!!
If a deal seems to good to be true, it probably is.
Use a rental agency or a real estate broker so you have assurances that you are giving your money to someone with the right to rent out the house or condo.
The best thing to do is to have an agent who works with a property management firm or real estate company to show you homes -- inside and out -- who will help you avoid the pitfalls.
I do not work in rentals, but our company does have a property management division and can help you out of our Everett office.
The biggest red flag is if they tell you, they are out of town already, someplace else...don't trust it..
Ask to meet them at the house and have a tour...if they cannot do that, then I would report the listing and move on...If in doubt, I ask you to flag listings....
Also drive by and see if there is a sign out front ... if so, call that number, not trust what is online.