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How to spot a rental scam

Here's how to tell a good deal on an apartment from a rental scam.

It’s so exciting to come across an incredible deal during your apartment search. So much so, in fact, that you can accidentally walk into a rental scam. While a majority of rental listings are legitimate, rental scams are out there—and not always easy to spot. Here’s what to look for when renting an apartment.

5 common rental scam red flags (and how to avoid them)

  1. 1. Fake real estate agent services

    If you come across a service offering to generate a list of pre-foreclosure or rent-to-own rental properties for you, it’s probably a rental scam. The idea is appealing because of the low price points of these properties. These services request either a sign-up fee or a monthly fee of up to $200. The list is usually full of sham real estate listings, either fake or expired, and it’s impossible to get a refund on the sign-up fee.

    Avoid this one by searching rental listings on Trulia. When landlords are ready to rent, they post their listings so they’re easy to find—it’s as simple as that.

  2. 2. Asking for money before seeing the apartment

    No online listing is so in-demand that a landlord will request money before you see it in person—even if you’re in a competitive market. These write-ups can seem completely above board otherwise, so they can be tough to spot. Just remember that there should never be a cost for admission to simply view a rental, so if the listing asks for cash up front, walk away.

    These rental scams also commonly ask for the funds through a money transfer, which is another red flag: it’s basically impossible to stop payment on a wire transfer, unlike a check or credit card payment.

  3. 3. A copy-and-pasted ad

    When a legitimate landlord writes up a compelling description of a real vacant apartment and posts the listing online, a scammer can very easily copy and paste the listing—but significantly lower the price. This is intended to generate furious interest, getting people to hand over security deposit asap.

    This is known the “clone scam.” This maneuver is especially aimed at someone who’s busy or renting from out of town and is willing to put down money before seeing the rental unit. Another clue will be a request for an unusually high security deposit, since the scammer is seeking to take off with as much money as possible, and as fast as possible.

    If you are renting from out of town and can’t view a property in person before renting, do your research. Search the address online to see if other listings exist. You can even contact city hall to verify the owner of the property matches the contact info you have for the supposed landlord.

  4. 4. An MIA landlord

    If a landlord says they’re out of the country, sick, or otherwise detained, but still want first, last, and a security deposit, it’s likely a rental scam. Typically, the property in question is either bank-owned, a vacant vacation home, or is empty for another reason. Regardless of where they live, a legitimate landlord or property manager will be willing to arrange for someone to meet you and show you inside the unit.

  5. 5. A withheld security deposit

    Unfortunately, even landlords who otherwise seem to follow landlord tenant law can try to pull a scam at the end of your lease. If the property owner gets cagey about your security deposit when the time comes for you to move out, take the issue seriously. They may say they’ll mail you a check and it never arrives, or they’ll claim they need to keep the deposit to cover damages, even though you left the place in great shape.

    This isn’t legal. It’s a good idea to take photos of your apartment when you move in and before you leave to prove the apartment was left in good condition. If the deposit still hasn’t materialized, send a certified-mail request for its return. If that doesn’t work, you can take the issue to small claims court.

    Now that you know how to avoid the wrong listings, make sure you find the best ones in the right neighborhood. Check out our guide to finding a neighborhood for you, next.