5 Warning Signs of Online Rental Scams

Finding a home to rent can be a daunting task in today’s competitive market. Rental homes are in high demand, which causes rental prices to increase.  Many renters are utilizing online sites to find suitable rental properties. However, we continue to see our friends and family falling prey to online scammers.  The most commonly seen in our area are properties that are listed for sale but scammers use that information to advertise the house for rent. The scammers are convincing people to mail them security deposit and rent money for keys that never arrive.  Below is a real-life scenario and five warning signs to prevent you or someone you know from becoming a victim of these online criminals.

The example below came directly from a family member who was looking for a rental home. She had posted on a social media site asking friends if they had any leads or knew of any homes for rent in her area.  Several people shared properties that they found online as available rentals. I noticed one of the homes listed for rent was recently listed for sale through a REALTOR® at our association. It was NOT for rent and I suspected it was another instance of someone attempting to scam potential renters. I reached out to her and she shared the communications that had transpired between her and the “landlord”.

Renter: “Is this house still available?”

Online Seller: “Thanks for showing interest. The property is available for rent. I’m the owner of the house which has recently been renovated. I wanted to sell it but due to some factor (insert excuse) I decided not to sell it again and I am looking to handle things myself now the best way I can. I am looking for someone that will take care of the property as if it was their own, someone that will be very neat, take good care of the property for me and make payment of rent with no delays. Pet are allowed as long as they are not destructive.”

Renter: “I would like to look at it.”

Online Seller: “You can drive by the house anytime of the day if you wish to view yourself.  I am currently deployed working with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), working full time here in El Paso.  I changed the keys the last week when I was around so I have the keys here with me. You will have to look in through the windows and if you like the property, you can get back to me to proceed with rental. What’s your email so I can send the application form for you to fill out.”

That conversation is full of red flags, but if you aren’t aware of what to look for, you could easily become another victim.  Below are a few key things to look out for when looking for a rental.

If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

Rent to own single family home: $755 a month/3 bedroom, 1,900+ SF home with 3 bedrooms. This is an actual rental house online recently discovered. The post included the property address too. We all like to take advantage of a good deal but is this too good to be true? Yes, it is.  After a simple Google search of the property address, I found the property was listed by a REALTOR® and it was NOT for rent.  Do some homework. Compare the house with other similar rentals in the same area to see if the rent is in line with what you would expect to pay.  If all of the other homes rent for around $1,800 and the one advertised is advertised for $755, it is too good to be true. 

No/limited photos or no property address.

Chances are that you’ll find only a single photo and it’ll likely be a photo of the front of the house. We have also found instances where the scammers have posted one or two interior pictures and no outside photo. If you have the property address, Google the address and see what you find. The house may have been recently listed for sale and the scammers have taken the first photo of the house and posted it as an available rental. Look at the description too. Many times, the scammer will take the property listing and use the same or nearly identical write up in the fraudulent rental listing.

Excuses, excuses, excuses!

If you make contact with the person listing the rental property and they have lots of excuses for everything you ask about, chances are it’s a scam.  The landlord was recently transferred to a different city or country for a job. A family member passed away and they need to rent immediately. There are several other applicants so you better make a quick decision. Sorry, you can’t view the property right now because (insert excuse). There is a for sale sign in the yard and you are told that the landlord had an argument with the REALTOR® and it isn’t really for sale. Look out for these excuses!

Show me the money!

Potential renters will often be asked to fill out credit applications asking for personal information like credit history, social security numbers, birthdates, and work history. Criminals can use this information to commit identity fraud and steal money from their victims. Some victims have even been asked to provide a photo of their family!  Be wary about giving out this information. Do NOT authorize a credit check without physically seeing the property and verifying the landlord is, indeed, the owner of the property. If someone asks you to mail cash, wire funds, send a pre-paid Visa or send a money order, these are all red flags. Wired funds are harder to trace than checks or other forms of payment. Don’t put a security deposit down to “hold” the house while the “landlord” sends you a lease. Your hard earned money will be gone.

Landlord is out of town.

In most fraud cases, if you respond to the rental listing, the owner will be out of town.  They’ll tell you to drive by the property to see if you like it but won’t allow you to see the property due to some unavoidable circumstance. Do not ever look in the windows of a home that isn’t obviously vacant under ANY circumstances. You should demand to see the property in-person prior to sending any personal information, sending money, or committing to a lease agreement. In some cases, a landlord hires a management company to care for their property, especially if the landlord lives in another state or is a seasonal resident. Typically, the management company is local and has staff that can show the property.

In the situation above, the scammer seems to be concerned for their home, shares a story about trying to sell and then decides to rent instead.  Scammers will often appeal to the sympathy of potential victims by stating that they are deployed military/veterans or undergoing cancer treatment for themselves or a child out of state. It was only suggested that the interested renter could drive by, not see it in-person.  Thankfully, it didn’t go any further than a conversation. No application or personal information was exchanged but it easily could have depending upon the renter’s situation.

When looking for a rental, you must do your due diligence. Ask the neighbor. Drive by.  Ask questions.  If there is a real estate sign in the yard, call the number for the listing agent or broker. Check the city or township tax records for owner information. Is the rent payment too good to be true?  Is the “owner” continually pressuring you for personal information without giving you the opportunity to view the house?  These are all red flags.  Listen to your gut.  Don’t be afraid to report it. Many online platforms have a way to report suspicious or fraudulent listings.

If you were a victim of a scam, report it to your local law enforcement agency and the Federal Trade Commission at reportfraud.ftc.gov or the Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov.

Our REALTORS® can help you buy a home AND rent a home. You can find a list of our members at www.bcaar.com by clicking on the yellow button, “Find a Member.”  Our website also includes resources for buyers/sellers, membership information, community resources and much more!  For more information about this article or BCAAR, please visit our website, email us at staff@bcaar.com or call 269.962.5193. 

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