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Rental Scams: The Red Flags and How to Avoid Them

By Eleanor Boschert

With so many rental options endlessly popping up on Craigslist or anywhere else on the Internet, it's hard to determine what's legitimate and what's a scam. So, you need to be smart, know the signs of a scam, and conduct due diligence before ever handing over funds and personal information. MassRealty shares some things to watch out for and tips on how to avoid getting scammed.

Just who are these people? Who knows, but many of them are from countries outside the U.S., but they could also be local. A scammer could be an unscrupulous landlord or a fake alias. Not only are they looking to take money from you, they want to steal your identity, leaving you not only cheated out of cash, but facing serious credit and identity threats on down the road.

The listing, even if it's on a reputable site, can be fabricated. It could even be a real apartment, but the scammer is not authorized to rent it. Scammers can go to extremes to steal money and your identity, so be leery of anything that looks suspicious. You could quickly be bilked out of thousands of dollars before you even know it.

According to the BBB Rental Scam Signs here are red flags that should tip you off that the ads or people hiding behind them are unscrupulous.

  • The deal sounds too good to be true. Scammers will often list a rental for a very low price to lure you in. Find out how comparable listings are priced, and avoid the rental if it comes in suspiciously low.
  • The email address looks strange or the posting is anonymous. Watch out for emails from yahoo, ymail, rocketmail, fastermail, live, hotmail and gmail.
  • They use fake names, often stolen from Facebook profiles or networking sites. They might assume the identities of previous victims.
  • They use stolen photos. If you've seen the photo online before it could be a scam. And, they may lift random photos from property ads in a home catalog, hotel, or vacation site.
  • They will ask you to transfer money. Sooner or later, will want funds transferred via Western Union, Moneygram or other wire services. Never wire money at the request of any prospective "landlord." They may even try to ask you to wire the funds to a friend or relative, or foreign locale.

Your scam radar should also go into high gear if you are asked to pay unusually high fees or a deposit on the spot. And, definitely, don't rent it if you don't lay eyes on it or step inside it. According to Craigslist, 99% of scam attempts result from renters not being allowed to actually see and/or visit a property.

If the scammer asks you to fill out rental application with all your personal information and social security number ahead of seeing the apartment, don't. In this case, they are walking away with your identity.

You should also conduct quick background check to see if a "rental home" is really that. Often, scammers will try to rent a property that is for sale, under foreclosure, or even belongs to someone else, and make off with your deposit. Beware of a "landlord" who is out of the country or state as well as one who may try to con you with a tragic story designed to play upon your emotions.

So, How to Protect Yourself?

  • Do your research ahead of time. Check out the areas you would like to live. Visit apartments or homes to get a feel for what's available. Understand the market and costs associated with renting. You can also check to see if a property is in foreclosure, is currently occupied, or simply vacant by checking with public records.
  • Don't let your emotions get in the way and allow anyone to pressure you into handing over cash. As a matter of fact, never use cash in a rental transaction.
  • Deal with a reputable real estate agent. Although you may end up paying a fee for their services, it's worth it. It's better to be safe than sorry.
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