Online Rental Scams: 5 Tips, 5 Red Flags
Renters beware: Online rental scams may be moving to a city near you. What are some keys to avoid becoming a victim?
In one recent case, an Arizona resident fell victim to a classic online housing scam on the popular housing website Zillow. The victim found a house for rent on Zillow and inquired about it. The scammer told the victim he would hold the house for $800, and the victim sent the money. But after the scammer asked for more money, the victim grew suspicious and called police, Tucson's KOLD-TV reports.
Lest you fall prey to an online housing scam, follow these five safety tips:
- Deal locally with people you can meet in person. According to Craigslist's housing scam tips, "follow this one rule and avoid 99 percent of scam attempts."
- Don't rent or purchase housing sight-unseen. Unfortunately, pictures can be misleading. In this case, photos of a legitimate listing in the "sale" section were taken and relisted by the scammer in the "rentals" section. Nothing can trump going to the property in-person and speaking to the owner.
- Never wire funds. Especially for rental properties, beware requests for substantial deposits before seeing the place.
- Don't submit to credit or background checks remotely. Wait until you have met the landlord or agent in person before giving up your personal information.
- Find out who owns the property. Always carefully inspect the property deed.
And the No. 1 rule: Never give money up-front without meeting in-person first and inspecting the property.
Alas, the victim in the Arizona case committed a cardinal safety sin by paying before seeing the property and never meeting the "property manager" face-to-face.
Rental Housing Scam Red Flags
Although housing scams on Zillow and other websites are becoming a serious problem, there are almost always telltale signs of a scam.
Beware the following rental housing scam red flags:
- Using Zillow for money exchanges -- according to Zillow, it does not handle money exchanges or escrow between buyers and sellers or tenants and landlords.
- Photos in the listing show up in other sections of the website (such as the "sale" section or in different regions).
- When you show interest, the scammer claims to be out of town and asks you to wire first-month’s rent or other fees to an out-of-state location.
- A requirement to pay by Western Union, MoneyGram, cashier's check, or money order.
- An inability or refusal to meet face-to-face before consummating the transaction.
If you've fallen victim to a housing scam, you may want to consult an experienced consumer protection attorney to figure out what legal options you have.