Rental Scams Are on the Rise: Here Are 5 Ways to Spot a Fake Ad

A house sits in a mouse trap in this illustration.
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If a Zillow or Craigslist apartment listing sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Rental scams are becoming increasingly common as bad actors take advantage of people desperate to find an affordable place to live.

A man in New Bedford, Massachusetts, was indicted in September for allegedly conning 15 people out of $22,050 in bogus rental deposits. Most fraud victims lived in Spanish-speaking and immigrant communities, and were in search of affordable housing.

Nationwide, 11,578 people reported losing more than $350 million due to rental scams in 2021, according to the FBI. That’s a 64% increase from the previous year.

Here’s how to spot a scam and keep yourself safe.

How Do Rental Scams Work?

Scammers will often take real rental listings of properties for sale or rent and repost them at rock bottom prices.

Hijacked property listings use a real address but replace the contact information with the scammer’s email and phone number.

Other fraudsters use the property owner or broker’s real name to create a fake email to make the con more convincing.

Scammers pressure potential applicants to send money over right away, usually as a deposit or application fee, to hold the property.

But when it’s time to schedule a walk-through or pick up the keys, the supposed “landlord” is nowhere to be found.

5 Ways to Avoid Rental Scams

Our general advice: If you can’t meet in person, see the apartment, or sign a lease before you transfer money, keep looking.

Here are five ways to safeguard yourself against rental scams.

1. Analyze the Ad

If the price for that spacious downtown loft seems too good to be true, it might be.

Scammers often post fabulous looking rentals at rock bottom prices to get as many applicants as possible.

Check out the spelling and grammar of the ad. Listings with grammatical errors or strange verbiage are often tell-tale signs of fraudulent postings.

2. Dig Into the Details

First things first: Google the address to make sure the place exists.

Next, do a Google search on the property owners, real estate agent and/or property management company. See if the rental company has bad reviews or warnings that it may be involved in a scam.

If you find the same ad listed under a different name on another website, that’s a red flag.

3. View the Unit in Person

Sending money to someone you’ve never met in person for an apartment you haven’t seen is never a good idea.

If you can’t visit an apartment in person, see if a friend or family member can scope it out for you.

Make sure to meet with the property manager or agent at the unit. If they don’t have a key to the rental (for whatever reason), it’s time to get suspicious.

Live out of town and can’t tour the property in-person? Set up a video call. Make sure they give you a full tour and don’t let them rush you off the phone.

4. Think Before You Venmo

Scammers will often require a security deposit, application fee, first month’s rent or vacation rental fee to “reserve your spot.”

You might be tempted to send over the money if you live in a hot housing market and your lease expires soon. But seriously, think twice.

Once you hit send on payment apps like Zelle, Venmo, Cash App or PayPal, it’s as good as gone. It may be difficult if not outright impossible to get your money back once you realize you’ve been scammed.

Never pay with wire transfers, cryptocurrency or gift cards either. If someone tells you to pay this way, it’s a sure sign of a scam.

5. Don’t Accept Excuses

Don’t let someone pressure you into sending money before you can visit the property in person.

Scammers may roll out a laundry list of reasons why they can’t show the apartment before you put down your hard-earned cash.

They’re out of town or out of the country is a big one.

Be skeptical if the poster encourages you to do a drive-by instead. Peaking through the windows isn’t the same as getting a tour. The current owner may not even be aware that their home is listed as a rental.

If the poster does show up to the rental, make sure they have the keys. Don’t settle for “I’m getting the locks changed.”

How to Report Rental Scams

If you spot a suspicious rental post on a site like Zillow or Craigslist, report it directly to the website.

If you’re the victim of a rental scam, immediately report any transfer of funds to your financial institution. You should also report the crime to your local law enforcement agency and the Federal Trade Commission.

You can also file a report with the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Rachel Christian is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance and a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder.