Your Social Security card is tucked away for safekeeping, and you’d never willingly hand over your private information to a suspicious caller. You’re cautious about online transactions and go extra lengths to protect yourself from cyber thieves. But not everyone is as diligent about protecting your private information as you are.
Whether you’re renting an apartment in Austin, TX, or Seattle, WA, sensitive financial information — such as your Social Security number, date of birth, and previous addresses — is often collected together on one application. This information that landlords use to vet rental candidates is the same information that identity thieves need to make you their next victim. Scary, huh?
There’s no need to live in fear. Just be extra cautious, and know how to protect yourself with these tips so you don’t exchange your financial security for the rental of your dreams.
1. Beware of online rental scams
First things first: Make sure the rental listing is real. Here are a few red flags to watch for.
- The rental price is extremely low for the neighborhood or the type of property.
- You must hand over your private financial information and/or put down a deposit before being allowed to see the property.
- The person listing the rental is out of the country or unable to meet you in person.
When in doubt, don’t hand over any sensitive information and report the listing to the listing site. If you’ve already been the victim of an online rental scam, report it to the Federal Trade Commission.
2. Ask if you can obtain your own reports
To protect yourself from credit card identity theft, you can request to pull your own credit report and give it to your landlord personally. You are entitled to one free credit report annually from each of the three credit reporting agencies: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. You can request your report at AnnualCreditReport.com. A free account with Credit Karma will allow you to see both your TransUnion and Equifax credit scores, and Discover Credit Scorecard will give you access to your FICO score based on Experian data for free (no Discover account required).
Heads up: If you’re in a rental market with stiff competition or if you’re renting from a larger company with strict rules, asking to use a credit score and report you obtain yourself could be a long shot. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.
3. Request to use a third-party service
If a landlord wants to base your rental worthiness on more than credit reports and scores, there are third-party services that offer additional information for landlords with better tenant protection. SmartMove, a service created by TransUnion, allows landlords to request that applicants create their own account and provide relevant information. A report is then created and made available to view without requiring the exchange of personal information (like Social Security numbers or bank account numbers) from applicant to landlord.
4. Know the policies
While one landlord might be diligent about destroying applications after use, another might leave them lying around without a second thought (even though there are often local laws governing what landlords are required to do with this information). Ask your landlord these questions before handing in your application:
- How will my private information be used?
- Who will have access to my information?
- How will my information be stored or destroyed after use?
If you’re not comfortable with any of the answers supplied, ask if they can make an exception. For instance, request your application be shredded after use or digitally destroyed instead of being kept on file. Still not satisfied? Consider walking away.
5. Wait for the right rental
Ask anyone who has been on the roller coaster of identity theft, and they would offer the same advice: Offer your financial information only when it’s absolutely necessary. If you’re on the fence about a rental, don’t complete a full application until you’re sure it’s what you want. If you’re aware of a few credit blemishes or criminal problems that could cause you to be turned down, have a conversation with the landlord before starting the application process. This can give you the option of walking away before handing over your information — saving you the cost of an application fee too.
Ultimately, the tenant-landlord relationship is built on trust
If you don’t trust your soon-to-be landlord to protect your privacy and take care of your sensitive information, do you really expect them to be on the up-and-up when it comes to keeping your apartment in good condition? Even if your landlord gives you confidence, ultimately, no one will be as dedicated to protecting your identity as you are. Pay attention to any rental red flags, ask the right questions, and walk away if you’re concerned your finances could be compromised at some point in the future.