Con artists are capitalizing on the competitive real estate market by running rental scams designed to drain money from both prospective renters and trusting landlords.
How much are Americans losing to real estate and rental scams? According to the FBI, losses have been steadily increasing. In 2021, the amount lost was more than $350 million — up 64 percent from the previous year.
If you have a move on the horizon, we’ve got you covered with tips to avoid rental scams. Or, if you’re a landlord or homeowner advertising a rental, learn how to tell if a potential renter is actually a scammer.
How rental scams work
Imagine finding a perfect apartment or house in your price range. Then, you hear that dozens of other people are interested too. Not wanting to miss your chance, you quickly fill out the application even if you can’t see the property in person.
It’s typical for rental applications to ask for personally identifiable information (PII), such as your Social Security number and payment information for the security deposit, so you share your details.
But then, you never hear back from the landlord. Unfortunately, this is how it often goes for victims of rental scams.
These bogus listings can be hard to spot. Scammers often steal photos and descriptions from legitimate real estate sites.
But there are a few tells you can look out for.
Scammers often rely on urgency (“You need to send us a wire transfer right now to secure this home”) or lies (“I’m in the hospital so I can’t show you the property”) to manipulate the victim into acting quickly — before they’ve had time to think it through.
Rental scams may affect landlords, too
Landlords are also frequently targeted by rental scams.
This can happen when a scammer responds to a legitimate listing, pretending to be a prospective tenant eager to secure a lease. Often without touring the property, the scammer agrees to fill out an application and pay the security deposit via check.
In some cases, the scammer will write that check for more than the necessary amount, then ask the landlord to return the surplus to them via a peer-to-peer payment app, prepaid credit card, or wire transfer.
In other cases, the fraudster sends a check, then claims to have to back out of the lease due to an emergency, and asks the landlord to pay the money back.
The trouble is, the fraudulent check they sent will bounce a few days later, and the landlord will be out any money they “returned.”
How to avoid rental scams
Now that you’re alert to this type of fraud, you can better avoid falling victim.
Our identity specialists help our members identify and fight back against fraud, so they’ve seen all kinds of scams play out, including rental scams.
To stay safe, try these rental scam safety tips:
If you’re a prospector renter:
- Avoid renting a property sight unseen. Wondering how to tell if a rental is legitimate? See it for yourself. Even if the landlord or agent gives a believable excuse as to why they can’t take you on a tour, always err on the side of caution. If you are searching for a rental from a different city or state, consider finding a trusted friend or a licensed real estate agent to tour a property on your behalf in order to confirm its legitimacy.
- Research current rental rates in the area. If it seems too good to be true, it most likely is. When a listing is priced way cheaper — or for far less than you’d expect after seeing the photos — it could be a sign of a scam.
- Be wary of high-pressure sales tactics. If you’re feeling rushed or pressured to share personal or financial information, just walk away — there’s a good chance you’re dealing with a scammer.
- Work with a professional. “Use a legitimate real estate website or real estate agent to find your rental,” advises Krentz. Keep in mind that anyone can post on classified sites like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, so there are fewer guard rails on those sites.
- Look up the address, description, and images of a listing online. “Many scammers take photos and listings from legitimate real estate sites and post them as their own, but with a lower rent price,” says Krentz. If you notice a rental is listed in multiple places, and one of those listings has spelling errors, wrong capitalization, or bad grammar, it may be a sign of fraud.
- Never pay a deposit via wire transfer, prepaid gift card, or peer-to-peer payment app. These forms of payment do not typically have the same fraud protections credit cards have and, in the case of a scam, the money usually can’t be returned to the victim.
If you’re a landlord:
- Try to avoid renting to someone willing to lease a property sight unseen. This may be a red flag that you’re working with a scammer.
- Never accept a check from a new renter that’s made out for more than they owe. Don’t deposit the check; instead, return it to the sender. If someone sends you a check but then asks for that money back, be sure the check clears the bank before you return the payment. If it doesn’t, you’ll know you were working with a scammer.
Other real estate scams to watch out for
Real estate scammers also use a variety of other tactics to steal your money and personal information.
For example, in a foreclosure scam, a fraudster may promise to lower a homeowner’s mortgage or “save” their home from foreclosure for an upfront fee (then don’t deliver).
If you’re ever having trouble covering your mortgage, steer clear of companies that charge a fee to help consolidate or cover your loan. Instead, seek help from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
According to the BBB, moving scams also cost Americans hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2021 — a 216 percent uptick from 2020.
In this scam, moving companies underquote then overcharge victims in the middle of a move (sometimes holding their belongings hostage until they pay an exorbitant fee). Or, they may demand payment upfront and then never follow through with their services.
One of the best ways to ensure you’re working with a credible moving company is to ask friends and family for referrals. Or, opt for a company that is open to sharing proof of registration and insurance, has positive online reviews, and completes an on-site inspection prior to moving day to provide an accurate quote.
How to report a rental scam
If you’re a Boyd Identity Protection member and you think you’ve fallen victim to a rental scam, give us a call right away.
Our customer care team is here to walk you through the next steps to try to recover any stolen assets.