The rental market is tough enough without having to deal with fake ads and crooks looking to steal your money. But it happens all the time. And it's alarmingly easy for these rental scams to rope in even the smartest among us.
Take, for example, Angela Farrell, a single mom in West Chester, OH. She recently found a perfect rental house for her family -- the price was good and the landlord seemed nice. She even drove by the place to check it out.
But there was a catch: The landlord was out of town and couldn't let her in to see the inside. Still, she'd talked to him a few times and she knew the house was real -- what was the harm? So she forked over the deposit money.
And that's when the "landlord" disappeared with her $600 deposit.
So how do you keep it from happening to you?
To beat a scammer, you need to think like a scammer. Here are a few trademark secrets behind those rental swindles -- and how you can beat them at their own game.
1. They 'hijack' real ads
It's so easy for fraudsters to trick you because they're using real ads.
"They don't want to work that hard, and they don't have to," says Michael Monteiro, CEO and co-founder of property management software company Buildium. "They're mostly stealing real rental ads, copying the text and the images, and making some minor tweaks -- something as small as changing the rent amount."
It's something Monteiro has dealt with firsthand. When his company was first creating its rental platform, crooks infiltrated it and stole the company's ads.
And they aren't always using rental ads.
"They're finding a house that's for sale, and they're turning it into a rental ad," he says.
2. They cast a wide net
Think you're safe with one rental site but not another? Think again.
"These guys aren't just posting on one site. They'll use a syndication tool -- a platform that posts one listing to multiple locations -- to cast a wide net," Monteiro says.
And they do it with gusto. Most scammers post dozens of ads on dozens of sites, bagging as much cash as they can before retreating.
3. The landlord is suspiciously unavailable
When you reach out to the "landlord" by email, pay close attention to how the conversation feels.
"If you're going back and forth with a prospective landlord, and the email has lots of grammatical errors and typos, that is a red flag," Monteiro says.
If the email doesn't seem too fishy, set up a time to meet the landlord and view the property.
The landlord may try to put off meeting you entirely. It's possible he'll have a story about being out of town (in Farrell's case, the fake landlord told her he was out of the country on missionary work) and say he needs to rent out the place ASAP. If he doesn't want to meet you at all, that's a clear sign to cease communication immediately.
If the landlord is willing to meet you, that still isn't proof that everything is on the up and up. You need to go inside the rental property first.
"Some scammers will show up at the property. They may even produce a set of keys, but then something happens and you won't be able to actually get inside," Monteiro says.
How to avoid fake listings
So how do you win? The best thing you can do is not contact the scammer in the first place, but "it isn't always easy to spot a scam listing just by looking at it," Monteiro says.
To help weed things out, turn to the all-powerful internet search.
- First, if you can get the address, search for it. If the address pops up "for sale," that doesn't necessarily mean it's a scam; many owners will try to rent and sell a property at the same time. But you should be cautious if you want to proceed.
- No address? Try searching for the images. Most browsers give you this option. In Chrome, for example, right-click on the image, scroll to "Search Google for image," and you'll see a list of search results that also used the picture. Seeing it on multiple sites? Open up a few, and see if the ad is the same or if rent prices and contact info vary widely.
Protect your bank account
At some point, a con artist is going to want money from you -- that's the point, right?
In most cases, the fraudster will ask you to wire money after he's "unable" to meet you. He might tell you he'll mail you the keys, or he'll meet you the day you're supposed to move in.
If you did meet the landlord but couldn't get in to see the rental, he might tell you he's working on getting the keys but needs a deposit upfront to hold the place. It's a tight rental market, after all.
Whether he's hoping to play into your empathy or your fear of not finding another rental as good as this one, the goal is to get your money either wired, in cash, or through a money order before you sign any legal documents. Why?
"There really is not much you can do then. Once you wire the money, it is essentially gone," Monteiro says.
And that's easy to avoid: Don't do it.
"Don't give money to anyone you haven't met," Monteiro says. "And don't give them any money until you've seen in the rental."
Even then, don't agree to pay anything in advance of signing the lease unless you can get a receipt or other legally binding document that proves you paid. And if you want to be really safe, insist on paying by check.
"At least you can cancel a personal check," Monteiro says.
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