How to Spot a Rental Scam

Rental listing scams typically aim to steal money. They will try to get you to send a check for a security deposit or move-in fee without ever seeing the apartment. They keep your money and have no intention of renting a unit to you.

How Can You Tell If a Rental Listing is a Scam? 

Below are the warning signs that a listing is a scam:

1. They Don’t Want to Meet You in Person

It’s a warning sign if the person who replies to your listing says he or she is out of town and cannot meet you. Some scammers might even lie and say they are in the military to avoid setting up a time to meet you.

Good landlords will make sure that they meet you. Renting to someone is a big decision and requires trusting that that person will follow rules in the lease. Good landlords will want to meet you to see if you’re the type of tenant who will pay rent on time and take care of their property.

On the flip side, scammers typically do not want to meet you, as they don’t want you to be able to report them.

2. They Want You to Move in Immediately and Without Ever Seeing the Property

Even if you meet someone in person who claims to be the landlord, you should absolutely see the property before signing a lease or sending money. It’s easy for someone to say they have a property and have an online listing; you need to see the property in person to make sure the place is really available and the person really owns it.

In most rental scams, the individual advertising the property doesn’t actually have any way to access the inside of the property. If a landlord instructs you to inspect the property by walking around the outside at your convenience, this is almost certainly a scam.

If you are in an unfortunate position of needing a place immediately, be extra careful. Properties that are available right away are likely either scams or the sign of a disorganized landlord.

3. They Ask You to Mail or Wire Money

Scammers will ask for money up front. You should not pay a landlord any money until after you’ve signed a lease.

Most scammers provide victims with a story about being overseas for work, to care for an ill relative or for missionary work. Because they are overseas, you will be instructed to wire the money to them with a promise that they will mail you the keys to the property.

You should never wire money to anyone you meet online. If anyone you meet online asks you to wire him or her money, report the listing as fraudulent and cease all communications.

4. The Price is Too Good

Whenever you see a price that looks too good to be true, it probably is. A property that is priced below the going market rate in your area should be an immediate red flag.

How can you determine fair market value?

  1. Do your own research into market rent amounts in the area that you’re looking. To understand what market rates are, you should look at properties that are comparable in location, size and amenities. You can look at listings for available properties on sites like Hotpads, Craigslist, and Padmapper.
  2. Look at the Zillow Rent Zestimate for the property that you’re interested in. The easiest way to find the Rent Zestimate is by typing the property address into Zillow. For most properties, Zillow will display an estimated monthly rent price for your target property.

While an asking rent amount below market is a sign of potential fraud, it doesn’t mean that the listing is definitely fraudulent. Keep in mind that the property owner may not know the true fair market rent rate, he or she might be renting the unit in off-peak season, or the unit is flawed in some way (near a noisy highway, for example).

5. The Listing Has Typos, Poor Grammar and Excessive Punctuation

Most online rental listings scams are conducted by individuals outside the United States. For most of these people, English is not their first language. If you come across a rental listing that is full of typos, poor grammar, and excessive punctuation, it was likely created by a scammer.

6. There is No Screening Process

As a tenant, you want to rent from a high-quality, responsive landlord who does things the “right” way. Great landlords always have a set screening process that they follow to ensure that they choose great tenants.

If a landlord does not require a rental application and credit check, you should consider this to be a red flag. The landlord is either unconcerned about picking great tenants because it’s a scam, or unconcerned because he or she is uncertain how to be a good landlord. In both scenarios, you should be a bit suspicious.

Ways to Avoid Rental Scams

Meet the landlord in person. You need to meet the person you are renting from. Will you work well together? Does he or she seem friendly and motivated to rent the unit to you?

See the property in person. This can be a time-consuming step, but you need to see if you want to live in the space before you sign a lease agreement. By seeing the property in person, you’ll also meet the landlord.

What Should You Do If You’re a Victim of Fraud? 

Contact local authorities. If they successfully find the person, they’ll prosecute and may be able to return any money you may have lost.

Contact the listing website where you found the listing so they take it down.

Report it to the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC is responsible for protecting consumers, specifically when it comes to how a business handles your personal information, or if an individual is falsely claiming to run a business.

File a complaint with the IC3. The IC3 is the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a government agency that makes it easy for individuals to report crime that takes place online. They work with the FBI and local authorities to help manage and solve internet scams, such as rental listing scams.

Always See the Apartment Before Applying 

The best way to avoid a scam is to see the apartment in person and meet the landlord. Plus, it’s an important step in your search for an apartment. You want to find a beautiful apartment that perfectly meets your needs.


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