The 6 Most Common Rental Scams

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Here’s what to do when finding an apartment goes from annoying to criminal.

There’s almost no way around it: Finding an apartment can be stressful. The search, the competition, the upfront money … they’re all reasons most of us try to move as infrequently as possible. (The additional expense and frustrations of moving all of your stuff probably also play a role.) But sometimes the rental process goes from merely aggravating to actually illegal. While the vast majority of rental listings are legitimate, rental scams are out there, and they’re not always easy to spot. “Recently, we’ve been encountering a lot of fraud that doesn’t fit the historical norm,” says David Peters, director of engineering at HotPads, a Zillow Group company that powers Trulia rental listings.

Here are six of the most common rental scams out there, along with suggestions for how to avoid them.

1. Fake credit requests

One common rental scam involves a request for a credit report. Here’s how it works: The scam artist posts a fake apartment listing online and asks to check the credit reports of potential renters using a link they provide. The link redirects to a credit report company that uses a referral program; the scammer can earn up to $18 per credit report request.

The credit report itself may be legit, but the need to obtain it in the first place isn’t, since the apartment listing is bogus. To avoid this scam, don’t release your credit report through a link from a potential landlord; instead, when you’re satisfied a landlord is legit, get your credit report through one of the three credit-reporting agencies (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) and have a hard copy available for the landlord when you meet them.

2. Sketchy real estate agent services

Another common rental scam: fake real estate agent services. These services offer to generate a list of preforeclosure or rent-to-own rental properties for clients — appealing because of their lower price points — and then request either a sign-up fee or a monthly fee of up to $200. The list the client receives is usually full of sham real estate listings, either fake or expired, and it’s impossible to get a refund on the sign-up fee. Skip this one by searching rental listings for free on Trulia!

3. Asking for money before you see the apartment

“The most common type of scam we encounter involves convincing a renter to send a deposit, first month’s rent, or application fee before allowing them to see inside a unit or without meeting in person,” says Peters. Imagine: You find a terrific online listing that seems as if it’ll be snatched up immediately, so the request for money upfront may not seem entirely unreasonable. And unlike some scam listings of the past, which might include misspellings or photos stolen from another site, these write-ups seem completely aboveboard. “Fraudsters are constantly adapting to improve their odds of successfully stealing money from renters, so they’re making their fake listings look increasingly legit,” says Peters. Still, there shouldn’t be a cost for admission, so if you’re asked for cash upfront, walk away. “There is never a reason to send money without viewing an apartment or meeting in person,” Peters adds, especially if the request is for a money transfer. This is because it’s basically impossible to stop payment on a wire transfer, unlike a check or credit card payment.

4. A copy-and-pasted ad

Say a legitimate landlord writes up a compelling listing for their newly vacant apartment and posts it online. A scammer can very easily copy and paste the listing but significantly lower the price, which will generate furious interest. Otherwise known as the “clone scam,” this maneuver is especially aimed at someone who’s busy or renting from out of town and is willing to put down money sight unseen.

Another clue will be a request for an unusually high security deposit, since the scammer is seeking to take off with as much money as possible, as fast as possible. “We try hard to make sure you never come across fraudulent listings, but if you come across a scam listing on Trulia, report it to us so we can get better at preventing them,” Peters says. “Click ‘Report this Listing’ on the listing page, and we will review the listing, remove it, and block other related scams. If you’ve been scammed, also contact your local law enforcement and file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).”

5. An MIA landlord

The setup: A scam artist finds a property that’s vacant because it’s bank-owned, it’s a vacant vacation home, or maybe it’s even being rented by the scammer, who plans to pull off this scheme several times over. They then insist they’re out of the country, sick, or otherwise detained, but still want first, last, and a security deposit sent over ASAP. “Scammers love to claim that they’re out of the country and will mail you keys once you wire them the first month’s rent,” says Peters. “Don’t do it! Regardless of where they live, a legitimate landlord or property manager will be willing to arrange for someone to meet you and show you inside the unit.”

6. Withholding your deposit

This happens all too often. A landlord behaves fine throughout the duration of your lease. But when the time comes for you to move out, they get cagey about the deposit, saying they’ll mail you a check that never arrives. Or they’ll claim excessive damages require them to keep the security deposit to make the necessary repairs, even though you left the place in great shape. To avoid the latter, be sure to take photos of the place right before you leave (and, ideally, when you’re moving in) to prove you didn’t trash the apartment. If the deposit still hasn’t materialized, send a certified-mail request for its return. If that doesn’t work, you might be looking at small claims court.

Posted by Meaghan Agnew on Trulia

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