How to Avoid Home Rental Scams
Home rental scams are theft, plain and simple, though they are by and large avoidable. Families who have been conned usually ignored red flags or failed to do their homework when looking into the deal.
In early January, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office arrested a 43 year old woman for five counts of theft. Authorities say customers responded to a Craigslist ad looking to rent property she was advertising. The “landlord” had each family sign leases and took payments from the hopeful renters, only to disappear. It turns out she did not actually own the buildings.
The woman had conned the key from the real homeowners through various scams, like telling them she was interesting in purchasing the home and temporarily moving in due to personal hardships.
Before you sign a lease with a new landlord, ask yourself whether you’ve noticed any of the following red flags:
- The landlord asks you to wire money. This is usually the biggest sign that the landlord is attempting to rip you off. Never wire money, whether it is for the application fee, security deposit, or any other cost. Wiring money essentially gives the other party cash directly with no way to get that money back.
- The landlord asks for money up front. Unless you are renting from a close family friend, there is no reason to provide money until you have signed a lease agreement.
- The landlord is “out of town”. Sometimes scam artists, to protect their own identity, will have an accomplice posing as an agent, customer service rep, or lawyer to hand you the keys to your home. If the landlord does not live in the area, make sure you are dealing with a reputable property management company in their stead.
- The ad is listed on a different site under someone else’s name. Scammers will often copy a listing from one home listing site and move it to another, lifting the original owner’s name and listing the property as a rental. They will use a different contact email to sift through offers and requests to view the property. Double-checking on different listings for the same name and contact information only takes a few minutes, and it can save you a huge hassle in the long run.
- Communication from the landlord seems unprofessional. Initial communication between a tenant and landlord often takes place through email, but there are some obvious warning signs that the person you are emailing is a con artist. Did your landlord’s first email begin with an impersonal “Dear Sir” or “Dear Ma’am”? Running a scam is a numbers game, and con artists don’t have time to personally address hundreds of people. Obvious spelling mistakes, an overabundance of capitalization, or overstating the urgency of the matter are all signs of unprofessionalism and possible fraud.
- If an email gives you pause, research the landlord to make sure he or she is the legitimate owner of the property. In any case, you should never rely on email contact alone to finalize a lease. Try to make phone or in person contact with the potential landlord. If he or she refuses a phone call, you should suspect fraud.
- The price does not match other area property prices. Check for other list prices for similar properties in your area. If the offer is hundreds below average, it is likely too good to be true. The property may be in shambles or someone is using it to commit fraud.
- The property simply doesn’t exist. This may be the case in the most brazen scams. The con artists in these cases rely on the renters doing zero homework.
- The owner always makes excuses for not being able to meet in person. Owners may give reasons why you cannot tour the home before moving in, saying the previous owners already live there or they have misplaced the keys. Demand to meet in-person and get a guided tour before signing the lease. In some cases, the landlord may just be lazy, though in others, you may never hear from the other party again.
The simple truth is that con artists can be easily detected by looking at their priorities. True property owners trying to fill a vacancy want a good match and have long-term goals. They want a tenant who is going to stay in the home, pay his or her rent on time, and hopefully enjoy the experience enough to renew the lease.
Con artists are out to take as much money as possible before disappearing. If getting that first payment sounds urgent, comes up in every communication, and seems to drive their behavior, chances are the listing is a scam. Protect yourself. In the event you are unsure or get a bad feeling from your interactions with the landlord, find a different property.