5 Online Rental Scams and How to Avoid Them

Michael Tammaro, photographer of celebrities like Tina Fey, Courtney Cox and Kate Bosworth, pleaded guilty earlier this year to grand larceny. He’d been accused to stealing more than $62,000 from prospective tenants of his New York City apartment, reported The New York Post.

How? Through a Craigslist rental scam.

If you’re shopping online for an apartment (and what hopeful renter isn’t these days?) it’s hard to tell if those blurry photos are just due to the landlord’s low-quality camera, or if he’s trying to hide something. Scams are everywhere online and falling for one can cost you big. One of Tammaro’s victims was out $25,000, authorities said.

How do you know if you’re getting a real deal or a raw one? Knowing what scams are out there is a good place to start.

1. The 419 scheme

This scam, which has been around in one form or another since the 1980s, became so prevalent in recent years that it merited its own FBI website. The name comes from a Nigerian penal code, which is often where these “landlords” are based.

Here’s what happens: You send an email inquiring about an apartment ad you saw online, usually with an enticingly low rent. The landlord responds and says he’s leaving the country immediately and needs you to wire money to an overseas location to cover the first and last month’s rent.

The problem is, the property is not his and is not for rent, which you find out after your money is gone.

2. The fake rental

I almost fell for this one myself. You see an ad for a nice place, probably below the going rental rate. You send an email asking for a showing and start getting the runaround. They can’t show you the place today because the current tenant is still living there, it’s being repaired, or they’re out of town, but they’re really excited to have you lease the place. Just send a money order and it’s yours.

Turns out the apartment isn’t available for rent at all. The “landlord” pulled the photo and information off a real estate sales website and made a fake ad.

3. The identity thieves

You see an ad for a too-good-to-be-true apartment on Craigslist with a hyperlink at the bottom telling you to click for more information. When you do, you’re taken to a credit application page. If you follow up with an email, you’re told you have to fill out the application before you can see the place.

You do, and someone now has your Social Security number, driver’s license number, and other important personal information. You don’t get a new apartment, and someone else gets a new credit card in your name.

4. Another take on the phantom apartment

It usually goes like this: You see a great ad, no clear photos of the outside, but the inside of the apartment looks perfect. You send off an email, but you never get a response. But you are inundated with rent-to-own and other email spam.

5. The long-distance roommate

If you’re simply looking for a roommate, there’s a scam for that too. Here’s the situation: You post an ad listing the room for rent. Someone responds, you work out the details and she sends you a check — but it’s for too much. Your new roomie asks you to send a money order for the difference. She needs it for moving costs, after all. You do, her check bounces, and you’re out the cash.

Here are a few ways to detect and avoid scams:

  1. Research the address. Pull up the address online and make sure the photos and any other details in the ad match what you find online. Ask for the address if it’s not listed in the ad.
  2. Look for local numbers. It’s not always the case, but a nonlocal toll-free number may indicate a scam.
  3. Check the WhitePages. Do a reverse phone lookup for the landlord’s number. It should list the name and location.
  4. Know your rental rates. Research the rental prices in your area. Anything too low is suspicious.
  5. Don’t fill out forms. You don’t need to fill out an application before you check out a rental.
  6. Don’t give out personal info. Don’t give the landlord personal information until you’ve met him in person, viewed the rental and decided to sign a lease. If you really want to cut down on spam, set up a new email account and use a free phone service like Google Voice to contact landlords.
  7. Don’t send money. A landlord should be willing to meet you, show you the apartment, and take a check in person. If they ask you to send money, it could be a scam.

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  • Rick Chumsae

    Realtor here. Another take on #2 above is this: About 4 million homes are offered for sale at any given time in the USA. Scammers source addresses, descriptions and photos from any of the 100 or so real estate listing websites and use that information to create a bogus craigslist “For Rent” ad, complete with address, description and photos.

    The scammer then directs the potential scammee to “drive by the house and email back (usually to a gmail or other untraceable email account) if interested.” And, “please don’t bother the current tenants – they’re a problem.” The scammee is of course interested because the advertised rent is a couple to a fe hundred less than the market rent. The Realtor’s for sale sign on the lot makes it look even more legit… plus all those wonderful pictures make it even more so. Then, naturally, the scammer is unable to show the house for a week or so due to travel and suggests wiring a security deposit.

    The Finale comes when the scammee arrives at the house, sometimes fished in to the point where they think they are moving in, only to find the house is not for rent and the scammee has been working with a scammer. Sometime the U-Haul is even parked at the curb.

    In my real estate practice I have regularly seen this scam. One made my eyes water… a GI returning from a war zone was taken for a security deposit and first month’s rent – a total of $2,400. He and his wife found out on what should have been their move-in day. One weird quirk on this one was that the GI’s wife visited the house two days before move-in just to do a drive-by. She happened to see someone out front who, as it turns out, was the current tenant. The GI’s wife told the tenant that she was the new tenant starting this weekend. The current tenant (probably behind in rent?) thought they we being evicted and MOVED OUT a day latter! So, now the landlord has an empty house and no income, the old tenant is scrambling for a new place, and the GI family has no place to stay and little money to put down on anything.