Caveat Emptor Isn’t Just for Buyers. Renters Beware!

If you are looking for a a place to rent, you are well aware how tight the local rental market is in the Seattle / Eastside area. At the end of April, the U.S. Census Bureau released 1st quarter data on rental occupancy, showing that available units were reduced in number throughout the United States. A Seattle Times article quoted the vacancy rate around the Seattle metro area as 4.6% during the first three months of 2012, the lowest level in more than three years.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of a tight rental market is it brings out the scam artists enforce. Knowing that vacancy rates are low, criminals speculate renters are having trouble securing a place to rent and take steps to prey on these people. A typical scenario for a rental scam starts with the criminal stealing details from a legitimate listing, including photos. The listing is then advertised for rent at an incredible deal, often on multiple websites. The scam artist, posing as the owner of the home, will communicate with potential renters by email, inviting them to drive by the home to look at it. Of course, the scammer won’t be able to let the renters in to see the inside of the home — the scam artist uses the excuse that he lives out of the area, usually out of the country, and doesn’t have anyone local to show the inside of the home. Some scam artists will even go so far as to refer to a real estate sign in the yard, claiming they previously listed their rental with a real estate agent and recently terminated the relationship!

The main goal of the scam artist is to get potential renters to wire him money, often to someplace outside of the country. The criminal scores the cash while the renter loses money with little recourse to get it back, plus has no place to live. If renters also fill out fake rental applications with private, personal information, then identity theft is also a real probability.

Renters need to keep in mind at all times caveat emptor — let the buyer beware. Bottom line, if the rental sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Scam artists use low rental prices to lure renters to respond to their ads, in hopes that a few will send them money and/or give them sensitive personal data.

What is good to know, however, is that renters, armed with knowledge, can avoid becoming fraud victims. Below are plausible steps renters can take to avoid being scammed when looking for a place to rent.

(NOTE: use common sense safety when meeting a stranger in person– do not go alone)

1. NEVER WIRE FUNDS VIA WESTERN UNION, MONEYGRAM or any other wire service. Any landlord who asks you to wire deposits and rent is a scammer.

2. Meet the landlord, or agent, in person and verify identity with a photo ID, like a driver’s license. If the contact for the rental is claiming to be a real estate agent, also insist on seeing his real estate license. If the contact states he cannot meet in person, chances are good he may be a scam artist. It’s not enough to check the identity of the contact using internet resources— scammers use the same online resources and may impersonate the home owner, or agent, in email communication.

3. In today’s rental market, landlords often use a tenant screening service which requires you to pay for the screening with a credit card. Never give out sensitive personal information, like social security numbers, employment history or banking information, until you have met the landlord in person and his identity has been verified with reliable ID documents.

4. Insist on seeing the interior of the home by being let in– if the landlord says the keys are with him someplace out of the area, and encourages you to look through the windows to see the interior, chances are good he is a scammer.

5. Research the rental to see what other websites it is advertised on. If the rental is found on multiple websites, especially if the monthly rent varies, see if an agent or property manager at a real estate office can help to confirm if the rental is legitimate.

6. Look at the email communication with the rental listing contact. Does it contain typos, grammatical errors and complicated stories about the landlord’s situation? This is a sign the rental listing is probably a fraud. Also, look at the email address– if it the contact’s name at a free service like yahoo, hotmail or gmail (ex:, be very suspicious.

7. If there is a real estate sign in the yard, or window, of the rental home, call the contact phone number on the sign. The office will help you determine if the rental is legitimate– and this will give the agent handling the listing a heads’ up if it has been used by a scam artist in a fraud ad.

8. This bears repeating: bottom line, if the rental sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

Real estate agents — there are steps you can take to reduce the chances of your client’s home from being used as bait by scammers.

1. Try to avoid posting vacant home photos for listings. If the current occupants haven’t moved out yet, ask if you can take a few photos of the home before they start to pack. If it’s already vacant, consider working with your client to stage the rooms you photograph.

2. Do not use a vacant rental’s address in online marketing, like Postlets and Craigslist. Postlets gives the ability to create an ad without disclosing the address to the general public. Just uncheck the “Display Street” box below the address to prevent disclosing the address. If there is no address displayed online, scammers will have a harder time stealing your legitimate listing for their fraudulent ads.

3. Set up a google alert for your all of your listings. This way, if a scam ad is set up for one of your listings you will be able to deal with it quicker.

If you believe you have been a victim of a fraudulent rental listing, please contact your local police force immediately to file a police report, and then file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) . A report can also be filed with the FTC, the federal consumer protection agency that tracks complaints about companies, business practices, identity theft, etc., to diagnose crime patterns which may lead to prosecutions. The IC3 and FTC are also available for legitimate home owners whose listings and identities were used to perpetuate a rental fraud.

*These tips are not intended to replace advise from a law enforcement professional. If you have any questions, consult an expert.