Rental Property Scams: Don’t Lease Your Identity Away

Last Updated on April 30, 2024

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska

When searching online, you might run into the apartment of your dreams. It has everything you’re looking for, new flooring and even enough space for that home office you’ve dreamed of. And all for a reasonable price.

However, contacting the property owner or potential landlord gets weird. They want all your personal information, an excessive deposit, and more. This is just one example of the many rental property scams you can find today.

Rental Property scams have been around for a long time, but they’ve never been so common or such a problem as they are now.

It’s an annoying prospect and one more thing to worry about when looking for a new place. Yet don’t let their existence paralyze you from making a move happen. You can protect yourself.

Here’s how to look out for these rental property scams and what to do if caught in one.

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What is a Rental Property Scam?

It’s an umbrella term for many different types of scams. Still, all rental property scams involve stealing information or money from potential renters, using false properties or listings that the owner never intends to rent out long-term. 

They can range from the blatantly false (getting deposits for a listing that doesn’t exist) to more difficult scenarios (a huge “application fee” for a property the owner never intends to rent out). We’ll go into some common variations later in this article.

Often there is a sense of pressure from the scammer, hoping the victim doesn’t investigate the offer too closely.

They can be online or in-person, and they are constantly evolving.

The Recent Rise in Rental Property Scams

A concern among authorities and professionals is that rental property scams and several other types of scams have been more common recently.

In some cases, the pandemic created new scams, though for rental property scams, perhaps the current state of the property and rental market is more to blame. People are more desperate for affordable housing and might be more willing to overlook signs of a scam to get it (they won’t get it).

Real estate agents, the FBI, and others are all reporting increased scams and related problems in the market, and it may be some time until things return to normal.

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Variants of Rental Property Scams

What does a rental property scam look like, and which types are the most common? These are important questions, given that the scams only appear to people looking for a place to rent and are otherwise invisible. You need to be able to recognize a scam.

Note that it’s nearly impossible to go over every variation and trick that a scammer will use, but most rental property scams will fit into one of the following categories:

Fake Listings

Some listings look too good to be true, especially in the price department. However, many scams involve fake listings for properties that are non-existent, using photos stolen from other listings. The goal is to get your attention. Who cares if it doesn’t seem like four bathrooms will fit in that apartment?

After it has your attention, there will be instructions on the listing on how to contact the “agent” or “landlord.” These details will usually be a little sketchier than most, and details might be missing.

Once in contact with you, there may be an application fee or forms to fill out with your personal information to showcase your serious interest.

But of course, there is no real rental property. The scammer will just make off with your money and information, and you’ll never hear from them again, most likely, (though there may be a second round of fees if the scammer is bold).

Fake listings are more common on some websites than others, given how some sites have more stringent verification policies. These scams are much more prevalent on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. Both have rules against scams, but they aren’t so preemptively enforced as on more dedicated websites.

Defense: Be wary of the signs of a fake listing, and stay aware of the marketplace you are using. We have more information on spotting a rental property scam later in this article, so consult that.

Odd Payment Methods

Things might otherwise check out in terms of the listing and the look of the apartment, or you can’t tell because of distance or other factors, but the listing, agent or landlord is insistent upon a payment method. It might be a wire transfer, or payment via Zelle, Venmo, or a similar app. Cryptocurrency has become a more common option in recent years.

In the strangest circumstances, they might want their application fee paid in gift cards, the top currency of scammers everywhere.

Why? Because it’s harder to report fraud, get money back, or trace the scammer. Wiring money or sending via certain apps is much like handing over an envelope of cash (don’t do that either). 

Checks, cards, and more secure apps have protections and require certain setups and verifications. Scammers don’t want to deal with that.

Defense: If someone only takes a wire transfer for a pre-payment, first month’s rent, deposit, or application fee, walk away from the listing or deal (run, even). The same goes for things like cryptocurrency. It is almost certainly a scam. 

Related: Mobile Payment Security.

Vague Leases

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When you sign a lease or rental agreement, you should know exactly what you are getting into. 

In one variant of a rental scam, the scammer will have you sign a lease that seems incomplete or has details missing. However, once you sign, you’ll be surprised to find that the details are added, and to the extreme favor of the scammer.

The details are meant to get you to pay an exorbitant amount of money to stay at the rental property or get to evict you as soon as possible, allowing them to keep rental and deposit fees and move on to the next victim.

Scammers using this variant will prey upon most people’s lack of understanding regarding contracts, agreements, and renter’s rights if you can consult professional help or educate yourself more about these topics, especially if something seems off with a lease.

Defense: Get the full details of a potential agreement, ask if anything is missing when looking at a rental agreement, and take your time. Ensure you get a full copy of the lease and keep a copy of the lease for your records. If you don’t get the details you’re looking for, and those details are reasonable to ask for, walk away.

Early Deposits

Beware of handing too much money over too quickly, especially if nothing is signed yet. Scammers will take advantage of people who know the rental process and walk away with early deposits. Some application fees are acceptable. Nothing else is.

The early deposits can be for an apartment, the first month’s rent, facility fees, or anything else. Be wary, and look out for convoluted explanations about accounts or trust. No papers, no pay.

Defense: Don’t hand over any money, in any form, for a deposit until lease papers are signed and you know you can trust that the landlord is legitimate.

Unavailable Landlord

You should be able to talk to and meet a future landlord somehow. When you show interest in a property, you find they are out of the country, horrifically sick on the regular (I hope they get better, by the way), or constantly in several other meetings, a scam is likely occurring. 

The goal is to get you to pay a deposit or fee while revealing as little of your identity as possible. If you don’t know much about them, they can more easily run off with your deposit without getting reported.

Nearly every legitimate landlord or company can schedule some time to show you the property. If they aren’t willing to do that, you probably don’t want the place, even if they aren’t a scammer.

Defense: Always make sure you can contact the landlord. If they’re out of the country or “sick,” it’s okay. You can wait or look at other properties in the meantime (and let them know that).

Excessive Application Questions

So far, most scam variants we’ve discussed are about taking your money, but your information is also valuable. 

There is some information a potential landlord needs to know to process your rental application and consider it appropriately. They do need to know if you’ll be able to pay your rent and will treat the property well, after all.

However, far too often, a “landlord” will take advantage of the fact that most renters don’t know what is supposed to be on there and ask too many personal questions that could lead to identity theft. This might be under the guise of a credit or rental history check.

Defense: Learn what is supposed to be (and not supposed to be) on a rental application and reject any potential landlord that asks too much. You can bring it up with them and refuse to fill out unnecessary or unlawful questions or just walk away.

Fake Agents and Landlords

Among the agents and landlords working perfectly legitimately in the current market, some fake agents and landlords hope to scam people. 

They will likely try to use one of the other scams listed above or alternatively pose as the representative for another listing or company you would legitimately be interested in, impersonating them to steal your money and information.

Defense: Do what you can to ensure that someone is who they say they are, especially if you think something is off. Try to be polite and explain the recent rise in landlord impersonation scams (they probably know about it and can understand if they’re legitimate).

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Signs a Listing Is a Scam

You can find listings with the same pictures or details on another site, though the address is listed elsewhere. Scammers will often reuse the same assets for a fake listing.
You have to pay an exorbitant amount to apply in the first place. It’s in your best interests to avoid such listings in the first place, but it could even be a scam.
You find many typos or grammatical mistakes in the listing. Some scammers are apparently allergic to spell check or basic editing.
Any paperwork or information you get seems incomplete.
The tenant-screening process is minimalistic or nonexistent. They’ll scam anyone!
The price of the apartment seems too good to be true.
You are asked for money outside of an application fee before signing anything.
The listing is all about a sense of urgency, wanting you to move in without seeing the property, meeting the landlord, or getting a chance to think about it.

Rental Scam Prevention Tips

Always be careful about where you are looking at listings online. Some sites are safer than others. 
Vet all listings carefully. Some apps and sites will do much of the heavy lifting for you, but make sure everything matches up. 
If something sounds too good to be true, then it is. A rental property with far too low a rent either has something wrong with it or is an outright scam. Ignore or question such listings.
If possible, look online for other reports about the company, landlord, property manager, etc. There should at least be some reviews, good or bad.
Read any paperwork in full and keep a copy for yourself. Don’t let anything get changed after you sign.
Always try to meet the landlord and see the rental property in person.

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What to Do If You Fall Victim

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Many people fall for a scam at least once, and you are not to blame (the scammer is). However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem to deal with. Unless you act, you can’t expect the scammer to stop or someone else to intervene.

Follow these steps in the order that best suits the situation.

Understand the Type of Scam

Unless you know exactly what type of scam you fell for and what the scammers were really after, you’ll be at a disadvantage when fixing the problem. 

Is the scammer liable to try again with other victims or just vanish with your “deposit” money? 
Is the money you sent traceable or refundable in any way?
What is the likelihood of future identity theft? 

These are the questions you need to answer for yourself by thinking about the scam.

Report the Crime

This is a crime, and you should report it to the proper authorities, amongst others:

If it was listed on a website, you will want to report the listing or page to the website so it can be taken down. 
You may wish to report the scam to the local police and file a report. The non-emergency line will work fine. Follow instructions from there.
Report it to the FTC so they have a better idea of what scammers are doing.

Minimize the Damages

You will want to try to reverse any changes, cancel any checks, and report fraud to your banks and accounts. If charges can be reversed, that’s the best outcome, though this might not always be possible. 

Now, if not earlier, is also a good time to cut off communication with the scammer and block them completely. Have their information down to report it, but further communication will only hurt you in the long run. A scammer will lie, string you along, and try to get even more out of you if they can.

Lock Down Your Information and Prepare for Identity Theft

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Image by Kris

If you are worried about more fraud, identity theft, withdrawals, etc., you might want to order a credit freeze and put a fraud alert on your accounts. It might make searching for a new place more difficult, but it will protect you against further fraud.

This is also a good time to use tools and services that can help protect your accounts and information. In this case, I recommend Aura protect your identity and keep an eye out on your accounts and information while you get everything else sorted out. Know that the risk will not go away quickly.

Keep It from Happening Again

Understand what happened, stop the behaviors and thought processes that led to getting scammed in the first place, and avoid places where you might get scammed again. It may take some self-examination, but it is necessary.

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Conclusion – You Can Learn to Separate Good Listing from Scams

Trying to find a place to rent can be a challenge. When you add fraud and identity theft into the equation, it can become an almost unbearable ordeal.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to make renting easier. However, you can protect yourself from scams by using the information above, staying vigilant, and being careful who you interact with online. 

Additionally, you can worry less about your identity and personal information if you use a service such as Aura to look out for you. You are not alone in this; there are resources to help you if you look for them and aren’t afraid to use them.

Other Types of Scams You Need To Know: