Looking for an apartment to rent? Keep a firm hand on your wallet and be smart. The Internet is a great resource tool, but it’s also ripe with scams — especially in the era of COVID-19. Some apartment rental listings you see online are completely bogus scams out to steal your money.
In fact, 43% of those who looked to rent an apartment online have encountered a bogus listing — 5.2 million people have lost money in rental scams in the US, according to a 2018 survey by Apartment List.
And the money that’s stolen is considerable — the median loss on apartment rental scams is $400. Yet 31% lost more than $1,000, and 18% lost more than $2,000.
The scammers love to target young folks — renters between the ages of 19 to 29 are most likely to lose money.
The good news is if you’re smart — and know the scams — you can spot an apartment rental fraudster like a $3 bill. Here’s what you need to watch out for when finding an apartment to rent.
The Most Common Scams
There are 2 common scams when it comes to apartment rental fraud: hijacked ads and phantom rentals.
One scam is when fraudsters steal an ad for an existing apartment for rent — revising the contact info so you reach out to them instead of the landlord. These kinds of hijacked ads are common on Craigslist because of the website’s loose posting guidelines. Always make sure the listing service you’re using has 100% verified listings.
Always insist on viewing the apartment rental, even if it’s by a virtual tour. Never lay any money down to rent an apartment you haven’t seen, and always sign a lease.
Another scam is the phantom apartment rental. This is when a scammer creates a fake ad on a non-existent rental — perhaps it’s a place they rented on Airbnb or an apartment rental they are illegally subletting (another common apartment rental scam on Craigslist).
Warning Signs of an Apartment Rental Scam
If you know what to look for, most apartment rental scams have obvious calling calls. Here are a few to look out for.
They Refuse to Meet You
If the landlord refused to meet with you, steer clear. That’s a red flag. In the age of COVID-19, scammers will use the virus as an excuse not to meet you in person. They might also claim to be out of town (I remember a string of landlords mysteriously attending AIDs conferences in Africa for a list of online apartment rentals in Cleveland). Even if the landlord lives far from the listing, they should at least be able to arrange to have a representative meet you. After all, everyone can agree to wear a mask.
They Ask for Money without a Lease
Scammers will often ask you to fork over money — especially if it’s cash or money order — without seeing the property or signing a lease. They say they’ll mail you a key, but never do. Never lay any money down until you’ve signed the lease. Any agreement without a lease is potential apartment rental fraud.
The Listing Looks Shady
If the listing for the apartment to rent is riddled with typos, excessive punctuation, spelling and grammatical errors, there’s a good chance it’s fraudulent. A legitimate landlord will always ensure a listing has an accurate quality description that’s been professionally edited.