by Susan Matthews
Criminals use technology and creepy creativity in rental scams to con college students, out-of-towners and vacationers. As a Realtor and mom of apartment-hunting, young adults, I’ve discovered it’s a big problem. Here’s what you need to know to avoid becoming a victim.
Hijacked Sale & Rental Listings
A young man relocating to Charleston, SC, responded to a CraigsList ad for a rental home in West Ashley. The “owner” said he was out of town and told the young man to look in the windows to see the interior. As a result, the prospective renter became suspicious and asked me to look into it. The photo and address were real. However, they were linked to a home listed for sale. I made a quick call to the listing agent and confirmed the property was NOT available for rent.
Home sellers in North Charleston wondered what was going on when would-be renters were showing up at their front door. They discovered scammers were using their listing as bait. A local TV news team recently shared the cautionary tale. Click here for their story.
These crooks also take legitimate rental listings and add them to other sites with one important revision: they edit in their own contact information. Many pose as prospective buyers to gain access to lockbox combinations on vacant properties. With those combos in hand, they can pose as agents and offer showings to renters who answer their ads.
Others advertise properties that don’t even exist! They combine any given address with unrelated but attractive property photos. These ads promote amazing amenities or limited-time pricing deals that create renter urgency. Pressured to hurry, they hand over their money.
And, all of these hustlers attempt to collect application fees, security deposits in addition to first and last month’s rent. Some even go as far as mailing fake keys to victims!
Five Ways To Avoid Being Scammed
- Research area rentals. Does the deal seem to good to be true? It’s a red flag if comparable rentals in the area are priced much higher.
- Trust your gut. Getting a bad vibe? Most owners and property managers advertise across more than one site. Cross-check the listing on Zillow, Hotpads.com, Trulia, etc. Is the contact information the same on each site? If not, that’s a red flag.
- Take a Tour. When scheduling a showing, ask for the contact person’s business information (position, title, and company). Search for the company online and call the number on the website to cross-check their employment and the rental information. If dealing directly with a property owner, ask them to mail a photocopy or email a scan of their driver’s license. Use it to compare against public records that are available online. If an owner can’t accommodate a tour, you’re seeing a red flag.
- Never pay with cash. Venmo, money orders, and wire transfers are the same as cash. There’s no way to get your money back. A signed lease is not protection. It may not be worth the paper it’s printed on. General-purpose leases can be downloaded from the web or purchased from home office stores. While legitimate homeowners use these contracts, so do thieves.
- Use a local Realtor. In the Charleston, SC area, it’s free! It doesn’t matter whether you’re seeking a studio apartment or a home to rent, most Realtors are happy to help. They have great resources and can protect your best interests. Don’t worry that you’re putting them out. After all, you could be a future home buyer. Some property managers even offer a small finder’s fee to agents.
If you suspect a rental scam or are a victim, please report it to local law enforcement, the Federal Trade Commission and the website where the ad appeared.
Susan Matthews is a Realtor serving greater Charleston with Coldwell Banker. Contact her for more information on renting or buying.