Apartment rental scams take on a lot of different faces, but the gist of a typical scam is as follows:
1. An apartment is listed for rent on a site
Scammers will list apartments for rent on all types of rental platforms, including Craigslist, Zillow, Facebook, etc. They often target websites that don’t regulate postings and newer listing sites that may not have yet instituted protocols to catch scammers.
2. You apply for the apartment
The owner will usually act excited when you apply for the apartment and quickly push to close the deal. They’ll often start talking about what they’ll need from you before formally approving you or might even approve you on the spot.
3. The owner asks for a deposit, which you pay
Okay, normal enough. Sometimes, you may get a twinge that suggests it’s not a good idea—such as the landlord who magically lowers the deposit amount in a high-demand neighborhood or a request to pay in cash.
4. You go to move into the apartment, only to find out that you never actually rented it
The supposed owner you met denies any interaction they had with you or does not respond, as they’re not the apartment’s real owner. Your money disappears, and you have no way to get it back. Worst of all, you don’t have an apartment to move into.
Since rental scams are hard to track down and even harder to get your money back from, it’s best to make sure that you keep an eye out for the warning signs. By watching for trouble, you can avoid engaging with scammers in the first place.
It’s important to note that some rental listings will also use leases with vague information to hook people into a rental they can’t afford. However, seeing doctored or incomplete leases is rare compared to the common move-in scam above.
1. The apartment landlord or owner doesn’t want to meet with you
They are on “vacation” and can’t make it. But they still want to rent the apartment to you. You should never, ever rent an apartment you haven’t walked through. At the very least, you should ask for a digital tour and a face to match with the person.
Landlords will want to meet the people renting their homes. They want to know you look sane. However, scammers don’t want to meet up because it could cause them to be reported. Many scammers aren’t even local.
2. The ad doesn’t sound right
Many apartment scammers are located overseas, and the ads they create will not sound like they are written by native English speakers. They may have grammatical mistakes, poor sentence structure, or use words that others wouldn’t.
3. They won’t accept checks and insist on a “cash only” deposit
This is not okay, and it is not normal. A cash-only deposit is a sign that they may just take the money and run. In many cases, the same can be said about money orders—though those tend to be somewhat more official since you have to know the person’s name to buy one,
4. There’s no tenant screening process
No legitimate landlord will allow someone into an apartment without doing some kind of basic checkup on who their potential renter is as a person. It would be foolish simply because the risk of having a bad renter can force landlords to lose thousands of dollars.
A typical landlord will have a criminal background check and a credit check at the very least. Most, especially those that have luxury, high-priced apartments, will want to get a reference as well as information about your past finances. Scammers don’t care who you are. They just want money.
5. The landlord seems to be desperate to get this apartment rented right now
Renting an affordable apartment isn’t easy because demand is always very high. Even if the apartment is even remotely affordable or well built, it will be rented quickly. In other words, short of a crazy bedbug infestation, there is nothing that should make a landlord desperate to keep someone in the apartment.
If they are begging you to rent it and going so far as to drop the deposit fee by several hundred dollars as long as you say yes, you should get worried. It’s a situation that is highly unrealistic.
6. They want the deposit before you sign the lease
This is never a good sign. The deposit should be made after you sign your portion of the lease, never before. Scammers might do this as a way to say that you never signed anything or to get you to sign a lease that is modified to have a higher rent than what you expect.
This often leads to a lease designed to be impossible to work with as a renter. Once they get the deposit, they may ask you to leave or may shorten the lease term. Either way, it can be a pretty bad mistake.
7. The lease they gave you is incomplete or vague
Sometimes, you might be able to move into the apartment that the scammer has brought out—but that doesn’t mean they’ll let you stay very long. A newer scam hitting the streets in recent years involves landlords giving people a lease to sign that is vague or incomplete, then taking the deposit.
As expected, the person moves into the property. But, much to their surprise, the lease they signed had clauses and conditions they would never have agreed to. In some cases, it may be rigged so that eviction will happen almost immediately, or they may claim that the lease “fell through.”
There are several things you can do to avoid getting scammed. These are the most important ones to take note of:
1. Avoid Sketchy Landlords
Do not apply to any apartments if the landlord seems sketchy or you notice signs of a scam. Don’t bother moving forward with it if they are unwilling to let you read and sign the lease before you hand over the deposit. On a similar note, make sure you’ve seen the apartment’s interior.
2. Trust Your Instincts
Oftentimes, you can instinctually recognize a rental scam. If something feels wrong or sounds too good to be true, it probably is. When looking out for scams it's best to listen to your gut feelings.
3. Don't Pay Cash
Never pay cash to an apartment landlord. This is a surefire way to get scammed when you’re making deposits. The best thing you can do is pay by check, made out directly in the landlord’s name or the company that manages the property.
4. Pay Attention to Ads
Keep an eye out for warnings and vet ads carefully. An ad with many errors or misspellings is probably a scam. Do your homework and watch out for apartments that are not where they are supposed to be.
5. Work With Professionals
Another great way to avoid scams is to work with a real estate agent from a reputable firm. It's also a good idea to stick to renting traditional apartments from large landlords with a track record. Try to rent from known and established management companies with multiple buildings because it’s safer.
It can happen to anyone! Thankfully, you can do something to protect yourself. These steps can help:
1. If You Paid by Check, Contact the Bank Immediately
The first thing to do if you paid by check is to contact your bank and let them know you've been scammed. Tell them to stop the check and that the check was done fraudulently. This might be your only chance to avoid the loss.
2. Call the Police and Give Them All the Details You Have
Another thing you should do if you've fallen for a rental scam is to contact the police. Report the scammer, especially if you met them in person.
3. Contact the FTC
You should also reach out to the FTC. The Federal Trade Commission is in charge of business scams like this. This can help track down the individual falsely claiming to run a business.
4. Report the crime to the Internet Crime Complaint Center
The Internet Crim Complaint Center, also known as the IC3, monitors crimes and can often help law enforcement track down scammers.
5. Consider Getting a Lawyer
If the rental scam was an “empty lease” scam, you might want to consult a lawyer. Depending on the terms that they put forth, you may be able to recover some money or avoid an illegal eviction. However, the chances are slim that this may work.
6. Flag the Advertisement on the Listing Site You Found It On
Even if it’s a low-end site, they do not want to have scammers on there. By taking down the ad, you ensure that you will be able to help protect others from the same fate.
Scammers often target people who are on a tight budget, senior citizens, or younger people. By knowing what kind of scams you should watch out for, you’re already ahead of the game. As long as you keep an eye out for trouble, you should be safe from almost any scam. When in doubt, the best thing you can do is call up a real estate agent.