You scoured the internet for the perfect rental. And then—jackpot. The unit is nicer than the others out there, and the price is somehow lower. The landlord isn’t able to show you the property, but will mail the keys once you share your social security number and a money order.
You’ve got to snatch up a great deal when you see one, right? Hold up. When a deal sounds too great, that’s a rental scam red flag. Here are some ways to avoid falling victim to one—and what to do if you already have.
What might a rental scam look like? It can take different forms. We’ve heard a series of common themes from people who shared their stories with Trulia.
Landlord on the Lam
Does the landlord say he’s sick, temporarily out of the country, or otherwise unable to meet in person?
“I was frantically looking for a house just a few months ago,” recalls Deborah. “I found that not only do scammers rent a place several times over, they also have a template for the out-of-town landlord’s reason for being unavailable and a rental questionnaire. I saw the same one eight times—word for word the same, except for the names and the location of landlord’s supposed emergency. Not only out of town, but out of the country! They even had legitimate company logos and emails, making verification difficult.”
When you’re looking for a house in one state, it’s perfectly reasonable to settle for a house in another state, settle for a house in another state, right? That’s what one scammer thought.
“The big tip off for me was that after he read and answered my Craigslist ad for an apartment at the Jersey Shore, he offered me a house in Kentucky,” says Gayle. “I said that was too far from where I wanted to be, so a day or so later he emailed about a small house and address in the area I was looking. But since he was living in Texas for medical treatment for his daughter and he didn’t trust anyone to handle the property, I [couldn’t] go in… I Googled the property and found it was indeed for rent—but it was a three-bedroom house, not apartment.”
Credit Check Needed
A scam is probably in the works when the so-called landlord so-called landlord starts digging for personal information before you’ve even laid eyes on the property.
“I just posted on [Facebook] that I needed a home for rent,” explains Emily. “The next day, a woman asks if I’m looking for a house and tells me the details and blah blah blah. Even said there’s a bad credit fee. I Googled the address, and every other address came up with a street view—just not the one she gave me. I asked if we could view the place before filling out an application and paying the [application] fee. She said no, only after getting approved! What?!”
How can you spot a rental scam before it becomes a costly mistake? Here are a few signs that something could be off.
You’re asked to wire money before seeing the property.
If you’re asked to fork over a security deposit or first and last month’s rent before even seeing the property—or the supposed landlord—stop. Money should only be exchanged after viewing the property and signing a proper lease.
They offer excuses.
When a potential landlord has a long list of excuses for why they can’t meet you in person, there’s a good chance they aren’t who they say they are.
You see the same rental listing with different information.
Sometimes scammers will hijack an existing rental ad and repost with a much more attractive— and probably unreasonable—price. If you see multiple listings with conflicting information, that’s a clear sign of a scam.
They ask for personal information first.
Handing over your social security number or other personal information to the wrong person can spell doom for your credit. If a potential landlord says it’s a requirement before even setting eyes on the property, that’s a good reason to run the other way.
Whether you were able to avoid the swindle, or the scam became clear after you got burned, here are a few steps for moving forward.
Stop communicating with the scammer.
Once you notice red flags, cease all communication and provide no further information. Anger and frustration may tempt you to let the scammer know you’re on to them, but your main concern should be protecting yourself and your personal information.
Flag the listing.
Let the listing site know when you’ve spotted a fraudulent ad so other renters don’t get caught in the same situation. To flag a Trulia listing, click the “Report this Listing” link on the listing page. The Trulia team will then review your claim for accuracy and determine next steps.
Report the scam to the local authorities and the FTC.
If a scammer was successful and you handed over money or personal information, it’s important to let the local authorities know, as well as the Federal Trade Commission. The information you provide could help them apprehend the scammer, bolster an existing case, or lay the foundation for prosecuting in the future.
Share your story.
Sharing your story and alerting other renters to the tips and tricks of scammers could help others avoid the same trouble. When you become savvy to the tricks of rental scammers and tell others about your experiences, you make it harder for rental scammers and easier for your fellow renters. Is there a way you were scammed that we haven’t shared above? Tell us in the comments below so other people in the Trulia community can protect themselves.