Imagine signing a lease for a new apartment, only to find out when you show up to move in that the place you selected, signed and paid for was a lie. Not only do you not have a place to live, but you're out hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
This might sound like an urban legend, but unfortunately it happens all too often.
Just ask Kaeti Bancroft, owner of Metro Brokers in Littleton, Colorado. Upon arriving at a vacant rental property she owns to show it to a potential tenant, she found a woman storing things in the backyard shed. The stranger reported her granddaughter had just rented the place and was ready to move in after sending $500 for the first month's rent.
But Bancroft hadn't been a part of that deal.
"Somebody had taken the information and pictures (and) gone on Craigslist with all the information," Bancroft says.
With just about every rental search beginning online these days, it's a given that con artists will try to take advantage of eager consumers. Combine the fake listings with rental brokers looking to pull a bait-and-switch with a rental of lower quality or higher rent, and you'll have a hard time believing which listings are real.
"You're going about this search and, let's say, half your time is being spent on this type of fake listing," says Ori Goldman, CEO and co-founder of Loftey, an apartment rental agency in New York City. Goldman and his brothers launched the company in 2015 to try to combat the number of fake listings online, offer a service that's free to consumers and help clients secure a rent reduction or free move.
The Federal Trade Commission warns consumers about rental listing scams as a common danger on its website, instructing individuals to report suspected scams to the site the listing was posted on, as well as local law enforcement and the FTC itself.
Major red flags for rental scams include:
- The listing photos have an MLS watermark.
- The listing details are vague.
- They don't want to show you the place first.
- They're ready to make a deal with no background info.
- They're out of the country.
- They want you to sign before seeing anything.
- The asking rent doesn’t match up.
- They instruct you to wire money.
While active cons online can be reported, Goldman points out that little is being done to try to prevent predatory apartment listings from being posted online in the first place. "The problem is most of the listings aren't real, and … this isn't going anywhere," he says. "No one – neither the (listing) website nor the state – no one's policing this, and I don't believe there's anyone that's going to be policing this."
While some sites do confirm listing info with the original poster, sites that follow the Craigslist platform of allowing listings to be posted for free help foster an environment where fake listings may be more common than real listings. It falls to you as the renter to spot telltale signs of a rental scam. Here are eight red flags to look for in online rental listings that indicate a possible con.
The Listing Photos Have an MLS Watermark
If the rental listing's photos sport a watermark – which is used to identify the owner of the photo – look closely. Scammers sometimes illegally pull photos from the local multiple listing service, where properties are listed for sale by real estate professionals. When a photo appears with an MLS watermark, the person who posted the rental doesn't have the original photo because he or she isn't actually associated with the property.
The Listing Details Are Vague
Not everyone is great at writing a rental description, but if basic details seem overly vague or don't quite make sense, it's probably because the person who posted the property has never been there. Omitting details on utilities or mentioning an attraction that's more than a mile away as being within walking distance can be an indication that the poster isn't familiar with the area or doesn't expect you to be familiar with it.
For brokers looking to pull a bait-and-switch on a renter searching for a new home, Goldman says it's common for them to avoid putting the exact address of the available apartment so the renter can't spot the lie. "You don't see exactly where it is – you just get a circle on a map, and then that's an easy way for them to say, 'Yeah, that's a different building,'" he says.
They Don't Want to Show You the Place First
If you reach out about an online rental listing and the responder doesn't immediately discuss showing you the available space, consider it a telltale sign that he or she has no association with the property. This also goes for potential renters reaching out to small-time landlords. If they have no interest in learning more about the property or coming to see it first, it may be a scam.
They're Ready to Make a Deal With No Background Info
You want a landlord or property manager who seeks reliable tenants. If someone claims to be ready to sign the lease with only email communication and no background on your financial stability, he or she is likely looking to get a one-time payment from you and may disappear before you move.
The FTC warns against adhering to requests for a security deposit or first month’s rent before you’ve signed the lease and met the landlord in person. You should never pay any amount beyond an application fee before you've confirmed the space is available, the individual you're working with is associated with the property and you've signed a contract that makes you the legal tenant.
They're "Out of the Country"
The reason many scammers give that they can't meet with you in person is they're temporarily out of the country. As the FTC reports on its website, scammers may even put in the effort to make it seem realistic: "It might even involve a lawyer or an 'agent' working on their behalf. Some scammers even create fake keys," and send them to you in the mail.
They Want You to Sign Before Seeing Anything
To avoid brokers looking to trick you into paying them a fee for an apartment they falsely advertised, don't agree to sign anything before you’ve seen the place that was promised.
Goldman says these brokers will have you sign a contract that states you owe a finder’s fee for any apartment they show you that you choose to rent. You may end up liking the place, but it probably wasn’t the place you wanted originally. "Just in general, you're there under false pretenses," he says.
The Asking Rent Doesn't Match Up
Con artists and shady brokers will hook many victims with the promise of a rent that can almost seem too good to be true. "That stuff is just all over everywhere," Bancroft says.
If you're looking at rentals in a certain neighborhood and spot one for a few hundred dollars less than the rest, proceed cautiously. Chances are it's either a fake listing or a fake rental rate to try to draw you in.
They Instruct You to Wire Money
Nigerian prince or not, any request for you to wire the security deposit or first month's rent is the clearest sign of a scam. Once the money has been collected, there's no way for you to get it back, and the person you thought you were in contact with can easily disappear.
Since Bancroft's experience with rental fraud, she says she's found renters have grown more cautious. "They're not so anxious just to send their $500 off to some place in Texas," she says.
But don't think you've outsmarted all possible fraudsters, Bancroft warns. More careful renters means con artists will only try harder to trick you.
Pulling one over on your property manager won't work.
Your ability to communicate with your landlord or property manager as a renter is key to living happily and in peace. When you fail to notify your landlord of problems you encounter – or try to hide guests or other things that may not be permitted in your lease – the relationship is often compromised. Especially in instances when you’ve brought in an unauthorized pet or let a maintenance issue get worse due to not reporting it, you may find yourself having to pay your landlord extra, losing your security deposit or even getting evicted.Stay in touch.
Stay in touch.
Any good landlord will encourage tenants to be in communication often, which makes it easy to request maintenance or ask a question about what the lease allows. Property management companies often offer multiple forms of communication, from face-to-face conversation with a receptionist or leasing agent to contact via email or an online resident portal, says Lynn Edmondson, regional manager of Wendover Housing Partners, a property management company based in Altamonte Springs, Florida. Once you send a request, the property manager or landlord will then “communicate in writing about what’s going on and what needs to be done,” Edmondson says. Read on for seven things you shouldn’t – and likely won’t be able to – hide from your landlord.A new roommate
A new roommate
Living with a roommate is a great way to save on housing expenses, but your landlord has to know about said roommate – and approve. It may be a matter of simply revising the lease once you notify your landlord of the desired addition, but your landlord also has the right to run the potential roommate through the same vetting process as with every other tenant, which can include a credit check, employment confirmation and previous residence referrals. If you sneak a roommate in, your illegal co-tenant could be evicted. One exception is when you have a dependent, which can be a child, elderly parent or an adult relative you legally care for. Laws in certain states clarify that “you’re not allowed to ask an applicant if they have any dependents living in the unit with them,” says Nat Kunes, vice president of product at AppFolio, a full-suite property management software company. Check your state's landlord-tenant laws, which should be available online, for more information.A sublet
Just like a roommate, sneaking a sublet tenant into your rental will likely be found out by a landlord, and it can have devastating consequences. Always review your lease first for a subleasing policy. The landlord may not allow sublets at all or could require the subtenant to go through the same vetting process all residents go through when applying to live there. Also check your state laws on subleasing, which may give you more or less leeway depending on how detailed the law is. In South Carolina, for example, the law states a sublease agreement isn’t valid unless the landlord has signed off on it. An illegal sublet could result in your eviction for violating the lease, as well as the subtenant’s eviction for residing there illegally.A pet
A dog or cat won’t help you pay the rent, but millions of Americans love adding to the rental family by bringing a pet home. Again, however, your landlord has the right to establish a no-pets policy or place restrictions on the pets allowed, such as the type of animal, size and breed. “If the pet [is] qualified to live there, it’s just a minor thing of changing the lease to add that and collect the appropriate fee,” Edmondson says. If you get caught keeping a pet in your place when the landlord hasn’t approved it, you’ll likely have to fork over the fees anyway. But if the place doesn’t allow pets, you’ll likely either be asked to move out or rehome your pet.Pet damage
Outside of properly notifying your landlord or property manager of a new pet, Edmondson says damage to a rental caused by a pet is one of the more common issues she sees residents try to cover up. Whether you struggled to housetrain a puppy or your cat loves scaling the blinds, the best course of action is to own up to the damage before moving out. “I’ve had that happen several times, when [cleaners] go in to clean the carpet and they come back and say, ‘We can’t clean it, there’s too much pet damage,’” Edmondson says. You’ll have to pay for the repairs regardless, but it keeps a more positive interaction between you and the property manager if you’re honest. Trying to get away with damage could also lead to a negative report from the property manager if any future landlord calls to check on your residential history.Maintenance problems
Whether it’s a backed-up toilet, a leaky roof or fire damage in the kitchen, any problem should be reported to your landlord or property manager as soon as you become aware of it. “A lot of those types of maintenance issues that over time get much, much worse,” Kunes says, noting a leak can lead to extensive water damage and mold. Edmondson says there are tenants who simply don’t report such issues for fear of having to cover damage they caused: “They think after they move out they will not be responsible for those damages.” Of course, any damages outside normal wear and tear will come out of your security deposit, and you can additionally be billed for damages exceeding that amount.Broken appliances
If the fridge, dryer, garbage disposal or any other appliance stops working properly, you have the right to report it and expect it to be fixed. There’s a good chance the landlord will replace an older appliance at no charge to you. If the appliance is relatively new or was damaged from particularly hard use, the landlord may look to you to cover it. If you move out before notifying the landlord, it will be discovered, and you’ll be expected to pay it, Edmondson says.A pest problem
A pest problem
Pests can get into a rental property in a variety of ways: Rodents could be stirred up by construction next door, or maybe other tenants have a habit of leaving food uncovered on the counter or table. Either way, it’s imperative you notify your landlord immediately about a pest problem so it can be taken care of. Most large apartment complexes have standing relationships with pest control companies, which consistently work to keep pests from accessing any rental homes and limit the spread of those that do get inside. If you don’t start communicating with your property manager early on, the problem could become worse – and the blame may fall on you as a result. “That could be a tenant-caused issue that the tenant could be responsible for to pay,” Kunes says.Read More
Updated on Feb. 22, 2019: This story was originally published on Dec. 6, 2017, and has been updated with new information.
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.