Common Rental Scams and How to Avoid Them
Written by: Veronique Hart, Property Management Specialist - Updated: Jan 13, 2023
There are a variety of rental scams perpetrated every day on online rental sites, presenting a real danger for unaware renters. There have been many instances in which unsuspecting victims have been tricked into sending money or personal information to scammers who do not intend to rent them the property promised.
Rental scammers may hijack an existing property listing by using key details from the original listing and creating a similar email address. They may even use a similar address or owner name to make the two listings look identical. In other cases, scammers may create phantom listings for properties that do not exist or are not currently available for rent.
If you are unaware of the signs, it can be easy to fall victim to a rental scam. We have compiled the following guide to common signs of fraudulent rental listings to help you avoid these scams. If you have fallen victim to a rental scam, however, resources are listed below to help you reclaim your losses.
Signs of a Property Rental Scam
Scammers rely on their victims’ lack of information while browsing rental property listings to steal money or personal information. Rental scams can take many forms, making them difficult to identify 100% of the time. However, there are a few tell-tale details that can help you identify and avoid potential rental scams. If you find a listing for a rental property with one or more of the following red flags, it may be a good idea to investigate further or report the listing to the listing site or the authorities.
Immediate move-in date
Some reputable rentals are available to rent immediately. Most, however, are listed far before the current tenant moves out to bring in new tenants. If a property is available for immediate move-in, it is a good idea to check if the listing matches any of the other signs listed below.
No property tour
No offered property tour is a major sign of a potential rental scam. Who wants to move into a property without being allowed to tour? If a property is unavailable to tour, it may be because it does not exist or is not being rented out by the owner of the listing. Before signing any documents, insist that you see the property yourself. If the owner of the listing stops responding or continues to try to get your signature or deposit, the listing is likely a scam.
Price is far below comparable properties in the area
Does the rental price seem too good to be true? Unfortunately, it might be. Rentals are generally priced according to the local market’s average listing price. If a property is listed well below this price, there is probably a good reason. Schedule a tour to ensure that the property does exist and is in a reasonable condition.
Scammer asks for security deposit before lease is signed
Rental scammers will do whatever they can to trick people out of their money. One example of this type of fraud is when a scammer asks you to pay a security deposit before you sign the lease. The scammer may give excuses for why they are not able to send over the lease agreement and will insist that they need the security deposit before moving forward. Unfortunately, without a signed lease, you have no legally binding contract, and the scammer can do what they like with your deposit money.
Property listing is poorly written
Are there multiple spelling or grammar errors in the rental listing? Does the listing sound awkward or computer generated? In some cases, a rental listing with a few mistakes might just mean the owner is listing the property themselves rather than going through a professional property management firm. However, if the listing feels strange, you should pay close attention to the other details in the listing.
Lease is missing key sections
Reputable rental leases include important sections that outline your rights as a renter and the landlord’s duties. This lease is an important legal document that will define the conditions of your time renting. If there are obvious omissions in the lease (such as no information on how rent is collected, late-fee policies, maintenance responsibilities, etc.), it may be a sign that the scammer has hastily compiled a false document to get your signature. If you notice missing or blank sections in the lease document, do not sign until you receive clarification and a revised document. Even so, this may be enough of a red flag to avoid the property altogether.
No process for screening tenants
Reputable landlords and property owners will have some process for screening tenants before they allow you to apply. This process often includes some form of criminal or credit background check. Scammers will likely dispense with this step of the process and ask for some form of deposit. Even if they do ask for your social security information to run a background check, make sure there are no other red flags in the property listing before sharing this confidential information.
Listing photos are watermarked
Multiple listing services (MLS) will put watermarks on their real estate photography to establish themselves as the property owner. If a rental listing has this watermark but is not listed on the MLS’s website, then the property is probably not being rented by the service. Contact the MLS to confirm if they are listing the property. If not, their images are stolen and used by scammers.
Unclear details in the listing
Finally, are there details in the rental listing that don’t seem right? Is there unclear information or a lack of concrete details? Property owners want to give prospective renters the most information they can to find the right tenants for the property. If a listing is confusing, unclear, or brief, listen to your instincts and investigate further before sending the listing owner any of your personal information or money.
What to Do if You Have Been Scammed
What steps should victims of rental scams take to reclaim their losses or hold scammers accountable? Firstly, you must maintain documentation of your correspondence with the scammer. Take screenshots of the scammer’s listing, emails, or texts. If you want to reclaim damages, make sure you can identify exactly what the rental scammer has stolen. This evidence will prove useful when you decide to contact the authorities.
Once you have compiled as much evidence as possible, it is time to take your case to someone who can help. Depending on the details of the rental scam, different authorities can help. If you have fallen victim to a property rental scam online, you should contact one or more of the following parties:
- Local authorities
If the scammer is in your area, the local authorities may be able to identify and charge the scammer. If the scammer is located across state lines, you may need to take your case to federal authorities.
- Listing website
Many scammers are enabled by a lack of oversight on the popular property listing websites. Be sure to report to the listing host that they have a scammer posting on their site. This will help protect others in your area from this rental property scammer.
- Federal Trade Commission
If you need to report a rental scam to the federal government, the Federal Trade Commission can help. The FTC was created to protect consumers like you and is concerned with individuals mishandling customers’ personal information or falsely claiming to own a business.
- Internet Crime Complaint Center
Most rental scams are conducted via online platforms. The IC3 is a government entity that exists to identify and solve scams conducted online. It is easy for victims of online rental property listing scams to report them on the IC3 website.
Rental Scam Resources for Victims
Rental property scams can be financially devastating to victims and their families. In some cases, victims of rental property scams have been able to recover their losses through legal action, charitable donations, or government assistance. You may also be able to recover losses caused by rental scams if you have the right resources.
If a fraudulent property listing has scammed you, you should be aware of the following resources available for victims like you. Various resources are available to victims of rental property scams that provide valuable information and assistance, and aim to hold scammers legally and/or financially responsible.
The United States government provides victims of rental property scams access to a number of resources. For example, the Usa.gov housing scams web page provides more information on identifying various housing scams (including fraudulent rental property listings). This page provides links to state consumer protection and the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center for victims of online rental property scams. They also provide helpful information on avoiding property scams and how to recognize these fraudulent listings. There is also a space on the page to report property scammers to the federal government if and when you identify them.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Another official United States government resource for victims of rental property scams is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau exists to protect American consumers from duplicitous or fraudulent business practices. The CFPB takes action against any party that perpetuates frauds or scams, including scammers on rental property listings. To enforce penalties against rental property scammers, the CFPB has the authority to file charges in federal court. The CFPB’s page on fraud and scams provides more information about different types of frauds and cons (including property scams) and how to file a complaint with their agency.
National Center for Victims of Crime
If you have been a victim of a financial crime (including rental scams), visit the National Center for Victims of Crime’s Financial Crime Resource Center page. One of the resources offered on this page is a free victim recovery checklist to help you plan and reclaim your losses from rental property scammers. The NCVC’s mission is “to forge a national commitment to help victims of crime rebuild their lives.” To fulfill this mission, they are dedicated to training victim service professionals to assist victims like you. Additionally, the NCVC partners with the FINRA foundation and empowers thousands of citizens to detect and report instances of online fraud.