How to Protect Yourself from Rental Scams

With the popularity of Zillow, AirBNB and similar services, it is now possible to rent a house, condo, or vacation home without ever dealing with an actual live person. For transactions that are purely Internet-based, there is a real possibility of being scammed by someone. Don’t fall for those too-good-to-be-true real estate listings online…here are a few tips on how you can protect yourself from rental scams.

First, be cautious if you are looking for a property using Craigslist or a similar free website. Craigslist is one of the few sites that allow people to post for free, so there are a lot of fakes and real estate scammers that use this venue to list “their” properties. Often these rental scammers will perform a bait and switch or offer you a great deal on a property that is not there’s to rent out. Unfortunately, there is little to be done about fake listings online so you need to stay vigilant and always do your research before handing over money or signing on the dotted line. The best place to start is just to Google the person’s name, the address, parts of the ad’s description – Google everything. If the person’s name doesn’t come back with any search results, take that as a red flag – everyone should be findable on Google, especially if they are legitimate real estate agents or landlords. Agents must know how to get real estate clients.

Here are some other red flags that you need to watch out for if looking for a place to rent:

1)         The property description and/or pictures will be very vague with not a lot of details. The pictures may not be very helpful either – sometimes they are simply pictures of the front of the property without any specifics on what’s inside. If you can’t get a good description or set of pictures from the original poster, move along. And even if you do get pictures and details, make sure that the person you are dealing with has the authority to rent out the space. Some rental scams simply highjack a real estate listing, cut and paste, and present it as their own in order to get your money!

2)         Another red flag is if the original poster refuses to show you the place first. He or she will want money and/or a signed contract up front…NEVER sign a contract or hand over money on a property that you’ve never seen. Even if it’s in another state or country, find someone such as a real estate agent or friend or take a trip to walk the property in person and make sure that it’s a decent place to live. If the people won’t show you anything at all, go on to the next listing.

3)         The biggest sign that you are looking at a scam is if the original posters will only accept cash or wired money, and/or they want money first. This is because they want to use a difficult-to-trace medium such as cash or wire transfer so that the transaction is not traceable. Any legitimate businessperson will have no problem with using other methods of payment that are traceable such as personal checks. Be wary if anyone demands cash for the transaction – most real estate deals are never done in cash, mainly because there needs to be a paper trail for tax purposes.

4)         Another sign of a rental scam is if they are charging fees above and beyond an application fee, especially if the fees seem large and out of line for a real estate deal. Application fees are usually between $35-75 per person because landlords cannot profit from these application fees due to state laws. These fees are used to screen and research potential tenants and will include a criminal background check, credit check, court records search, and past rental history. This fee is worth paying to legitimate sources because it will protect you as well as them in the long run. Another red flag is if the landlord demands a security deposit or first month’s rent before you’ve signed a lease. This is not legal, and you should never pay anything beyond the application fee before you’ve seen the property and signed a proper lease.

According to private investigator Darrin Giglio, a leading Manhattan private investigator, New York City and other large cities across the United States are hotspots for rental scams because apartments are in such short supply. A good deal may be offered up and gone within hours, so the rental scammers monopolize on that feeling of urgency. Giglio said, “You still need to do all of your research if you find a great apartment online. Find out who actually owns the building before any money changes hands.” Giglio also suggests that if you have already been scammed, make a report to the local police, state attorney general, and contact a lawyer if necessary. The Federal Trade Commission also has a place on their website to report such activities (

About the Author