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Don’t Believe Every Rental Listing You See Online

Several clues indicate trouble

By Susan Hindman

You wouldn’t think that renting an apartment or house could land you in the scam world, but that’s exactly what’s been happening lately. Faced with having to hunt for homes long-distance, renters are using Web sites to find listings in another city or state—and sometimes running into trouble.

The scam can play out a number of ways, says the Federal Trade Commission, which has been monitoring the problem and has issued an alert to consumers. Some scammers hijack a rental or real estate listing by changing the email address or other contact information, and placing the modified ad on another site. The altered ad may use the name of the person who posted the original ad.

Others make up listings for places that aren’t for rent or don’t exist, and try to lure you in with the promise of low rent. The goal is to get your money before you find out.

In Ocean City, New Jersey, KYW Newsradio reported that scammers were stealing shore home rental postings right off of legitimate realtor Web sites and reposting them at online sites like Craigslist. Possibly operating outside of the United States, the scammers were having victims send rental applications over the Internet and deposits to a foreign contact.

In Denver, real-estate brokers told the Denver Post that they are seeing more of the homes they have listed for sale show up as rentals on Craigslist. Potential renters are even showing up at homes and telling the owners they’re responding to the online ad; in one instance, a couple moved into a home—unbeknownst to its off-site owner—after responding to one of these ads. Another scam in Denver involved a woman looking for a short-term lease who found a condo to rent, and wound up out the deposit and first month’s rent when the man she gave it to vanished.

False ads can be used to do more than collect money; they can trick potential renters into releasing personal information that can be used to steal their identities.

How can you spot a scam when you’re looking for rental property? The FTC says to watch for these signs:

  • They want you to wire money. This is the surest sign of a scam. There’s never a good reason to wire money to pay a security deposit, application fee, or first month’s rent. Wiring money is the same as sending cash, and once you send it, you have no way to get it back.
  • They want a security deposit or first month’s rent before you’ve met or signed a lease. It’s never a good idea to send money to someone you’ve never met in person for an apartment you haven’t seen. If you can’t visit an apartment or house yourself, ask someone you trust to go and confirm that it’s for rent. In addition to setting up a meeting, do a search on the landlord and listing. If you find the same ad listed under a different name, that’s a clue it may be a scam.
  • They say they’re out of the country. But they have a plan to get the keys into your hands. It might involve a lawyer or “agent” working on their behalf. Some scammers even create fake keys. Be skeptical, and don’t send money overseas. If you can’t meet in person, see the apartment, or sign a lease before you pay, keep looking.

If you find yourself the target of a rental scam, report it to your local law enforcement, the FTC, and the Web site where the ad was posted.

Published June 23, 2009

Susan Hindman
Silver Planet Feature Writer

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