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Renting a new home or apartment? Top money-stealing scams and how to avoid them

You can’t turn a corner without running into a new scam or hustle nowadays. These scams touch nearly every aspect of life, including renting a home or apartment. In 2020 alone, more than 13,000 victims lost $213 million to rental scams, the FBI reports.

Rental scams aren’t the only ones taking over. Here are five online scams that can cost you thousands.

The AARP and many other agencies are warning potential renters of the various tricks criminals are using right now, hoping to convince you to give them your hard-earned money. Don’t be a victim. Let’s go through some of the top rental scams and how to avoid them.

Rental scams are hard to avoid

Why are rental scams so bad right now? Blame the pandemic. People are struggling financially and looking for more inexpensive living situations. Scammers are taking advantage of the gap in affordable housing — and making every effort to steal the money would-be renters do have. Here’s how.

Wire deposits

A common tactic is asking for a deposit upfront through a payment app like Zelle or PayPal, or through a wire transfer with a company like Western Union. Often, these requests are made without a potential renter ever seeing the property. Spoiler: Either it doesn’t exist or there was no chance of you getting that rental in the first place.

To get you to bite, a scammer will say there’s a ton of interest in a property. If you don’t close the deal now, you’ll miss out! They then ask for an immediate deposit to secure your spot. Say goodbye to that money.

Online listings

Craigslist is great for a lot of things, but there’s a good chance you’ll come across at least one scam in your search for a place to live. Online listings are scammers’ greatest opportunity to find potential targets.

Sites like Craigslist don’t require verification to post a home or apartment listing. That means the post for your dream apartment, or one listed for a smoking deal, could be entirely fake. The person who listed it will do his or her best to convince you to hand over some cash before you ever see the place.

How can I protect myself from rental scams?

If you’re in the market to rent an apartment or a home, you need to do your due diligence. Most of the time, scammers will try to get your money in a way you can’t get back, like through a payment app, cash or wire transfer.

Once the money is gone, there’s no way to get it back. Here are a few key ways to make sure you aren’t the next victim of a housing scam.

1. Never send money these ways

A legit landlord will take a check or accept credit cards. Never send money through platforms like Zelle or PayPal. These platforms are designed to send money securely to friends or family, not to people you don’t know.

Any time you transfer money to an unknown user, you put yourself at risk. Typically, payment apps don’t refund money when it’s been lost in a scam, so you’re putting yourself at risk if you aren’t 100% sure of the sender’s motives. Be safe and avoid paying this way altogether.

The same goes for Western Union. Scams for Western Union services are rampant, and if someone is asking for money this way, it’s a big red flag.

If you use apps like Zelle or Venmo, avoid making this big mistake.

2. Always see a property first

Renting anything sight unseen is a bad idea. Even if there’s no scam involved, a landlord could be using old pictures to make a rough place look great.

A common scam tactic is to steal photos of a house for sale from Zillow and advertise it as a rental. A true scammer won’t have access to the home. If you insist on a showing and they won’t give you one, you’ve saved yourself time and money.

Insist on a showing with an authorized representative before putting down a deposit. Always double-check the information in the online listing with the property you’re being shown. If things feel off, say “No thanks” and get out of there.

3. If it sounds to good to be true, it’s probaly a scam

Everyone loves a good deal, but the sad truth is, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Scammers prey on those who are strapped for cash and need an inexpensive place to live.

If you find a house or an apartment listed for significantly less than it should be, this is a major red flag. Check property rental prices in your area using a site like Rentometer or to ensure the deal you are finding is in the realm of possibility.

4. Double check the agency’s information

Google can work wonders for digging up info on a building, landlord or leasing agency. A great way to verify the legitimacy of a rental is to search for the address and agency information online. If you can’t find any information, the rental listing might be fake. Check for any worrying reviews or warnings, too.

5. Get a written lease

Every legitimate rental agency, landlord or owner requires a lease before moving into a property. Always review a written lease before you provide any payment for services. This protects both you and the owner of the property and verifies that the opportunity is not a scam. Be sure to read all paperwork carefully. This is one time when signing blindly could go very badly.

You’re on a roll: Looking for ways to protect yourself from hackers as well as scammers? Here are 20 security secrets hackers don’t want you to know.

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