Renting myths

7 tips to renting an apartment online without getting scammed

Clever scam artists have been tricking renters out of their hard-earned cash for as long as landlords have been putting out “FOR RENT” signs. But, modern-day thieves are finding new and clever ways to separate you from your money.

Recently, Canada’s CBC News followed the story of a young Toronto renter who lost $1,400 after wiring the money to a landlord for a cheap studio apartment. The landlord wasn’t a landlord at all — and the property didn’t exist. It’s a common scam, but here’s the twist: The landlord didn’t have a sob story explaining why he was out of the country and would need the money wired.

Instead, he claimed to be working for a well-known rental payment company in San Francisco. He even used a falsified email address and letterhead to communicate with the renter. When she checked out the company, they were legit, so she wired the money. But, of course, the keys never arrived. The rental payment company, Rentmatic, told CBC News they received more than 30 inquiries from victims in two weeks.

That’s just one scam gaining popularity, and the Toronto woman was lucky enough to get her money back. But scammers keep devising new schemes, and you might not be as lucky. Here’s how to outsmart them and avoid rental scams…

1. Know typical scam tactics

Rental scams are so common the Federal Trade Commission has a list of ways to spot them. Commit these common warning signs to memory before apartment hunting:

  • The landlord is out of the country – Fake landlords often have to leave the country before renting their great apartment.
  • They want the money up front – No legitimate landlord asks for rent or a security deposit before you sign the lease.
  • They ask for a wire transfer – A real landlord can meet you in person to pick up a check or money order.

2. Search reputable sites

Which ones? Mike Cerny, CEO of the social apartment review site DoNotRent.com, recommends Zillow. “It has the most verified rental listings from multiple Internet portals,” Cerny says.  On Zillow, you’ll find floor plans, photos, and neighborhood information.

Another similar site, Trulia, also posts rental ads. On Trulia, you’ll see rentals posted mostly by licensed real estate agents and property management companies. Listings include photos and info about the property and local schools.

For a broad search, try PadMapper. It pulls rental listings from several reputable rental sites and shows a map of available rentals in your area. PadMapper also has a feature that lets you sort by everything you care about, right down to the type of pets allowed.

Finally, Cerny says, “don’t rule out Craigslist.” Craigslist is a free, minimally managed site, so ads can be hit or miss. But it can be worth it.

“There are listings from landlords and property managers who can’t afford to pay expensive marketing fees on national sites,” Cerny says. “You will also come across owners in condo buildings that list units for rent, and you’re likely to score a better deal than renting from a large apartment owner.”

3. Avoid too-good-to-be-true deals

If a rental is hundreds of dollars cheaper than those nearby, you need to know why. Odds are good the place is a scam, or there’s something seriously wrong with it. How can you tell what the going rate is? Check a site like Rentometer, which compares rents with others nearby with a simple speedometer-like reading.

4. Study photos

Photos that don’t seem authentic, don’t match up, or have date stamps from years gone by can be an indication of a scam. Here are a few other things to look out for:

  • Make sure outside photos match the area. If you see mountains in the background and you live in Florida, well, you’ve probably uncovered a scam.
  • Do the photos seem professionally taken? Many scam artists use photos from magazines or Realtor brochures in their ads.
  • Do the rooms look very different? Does the rental seem to change from room to room? The landlord may have gotten their properties mixed up, or the scam artists might be saving pictures from other legit rentals and combining them in the same ad.

If you can’t tell if a photo is legit, email the landlord and ask for more. Most real landlords and property managers will be happy to oblige.

5. Fact-check addresses

I once found a great apartment online, but when I drove by the property during the day, it wasn’t the three-bedroom craftsman-style place I expected. It was a no-bedroom place of business. When I called “the owner,” he hung up on me and took down the ad.

His scam didn’t work because I drove by and realized I was trying to rent a car wash. If you can, do the same. If you can’t drive by in person, at least do it virtually. Plug the address into Google Maps for a street view.

6. Read reviews

Look for reviews from past renters. While most scams are simply out to take your money and never give you the keys, some landlords are running what I would also consider a scam – posting great-sounding ads for places that are actually slums. Sites like DoNotRent.com allow renters to post candid stories of their experiences to help you steer clear of slumlords. But don’t go by reviews alone.

“Before you write off an apartment you love because of a few negative reviews online, contact the previous reviewer, listing broker or property manager and discuss issue mentioned in the negative reviews,” Cerny says. “There are two sides to every story, and you can be the judge, but it’s worth bringing up tough questions to the landlord or property manager to find out if an issue has been resolved.”

7. Sign in person

Finally, here’s the easiest way to avoid a scam: Do everything in person. Never rent an apartment sight unseen. If you’re renting something short-term like a vacation rental, ask the owner to meet you the day you visit to collect the rent money and give you the keys. Agree to do business by mail, and you may never see those keys.

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