A person looking for an apartment to rent will probably want to leap at an ad that promises cheap rent. Then there’s the added pressure of making a deposit before someone else snatches up such a great deal. But hold on: it just might be a scam. According to a recent California Department of Real Estate bulletin, imposter landlords are still scamming innocent would-be tenants.
Here’s a typical scenario: The scammer—who is not the property owner—advertises an apartment on craigslist (or a similar website) at half the going rental rate. A prospective tenant answers the ad, hands the scammer a deposit, and then ends up with nothing—no apartment and no money.
Sometimes the scammer has stolen a key or broken into the empty apartment, in order to make the deal. Or he may just meet the prospective tenant outside with an excuse and a promise to show the apartment tomorrow, provided the tenant will put down a deposit now to hold the unit. Either way, the scammer’s goal is to get a deposit check (and sometimes even first and last month’s rent). He then disappears with the tenant’s money, never to be seen again.
A variation of the scam involves scammers who claim to be living outside the country (which actually may be true). They tell the would-be tenant to send them a deposit and they’ll send her a key. If the tenant doesn’t like the space, she can return the key for a full refund. The refund, of course, never happens.
To avoid getting stung by this kind of scam, just remember the old adage “if it’s too good to be true, it’s not!” Ultra cheap rents should trigger a red flag. Either avoid the ad altogether, or do some quick Internet research first. Find out who actually owns the property (you should be able to check the county records pretty easily). You could also google key phrases from the ad or even the property address; scammers often copy legitimate ads from Zillow, Trulia, or Redfin wholesale. You may be able to find the genuine ad, with the real rental rate. Finally—especially if the “landlord” is out of the country, review the ad for odd language and inconsistencies. We’ve all received enough scam emails (anyone want to send a check to a Nigerian prince?) to recognize the signs of bot-generated language.
Be careful out there! And remember, Rockwell Institute is always happy to answer your questions about real estate education.