Stella contacted the listed owner and soon received an email. “I’m very new to this landlord business,” the person wrote, according to emails Stella shared with The Washington Post. “We’re not after the money, but we want it clean and you take it as your own.”
The alleged landlord, who identified himself as a Catholic missionary, sent a list of “application questions”, including whether Stella was willing to send a $1,000 security deposit before moving in. No problem, Stella replied, but could they visit the house first?
Then he had suspicions. He Googled the house’s address and found it for sale on Zillow. Its “owner” was a scam artist who had extracted the photos and details of the house from a legitimate listing.
That wasn’t the only fake listing Stella encountered in her search for affordable housing, he said.
Today, navigating real estate scams is part of the process for potential tenants looking for homes online. And the sustained surge in house prices amidst inflation and supply issues makes people more vulnerable as they scramble to find something within their budget, fraud experts say.
Average rent in the United States increased by 9.2% during the three months ended June 30, compared to the same period last year, according to data from commercial real estate company CoStar. In major cities, the rise in rent prices is even more pronounced: the average rent in Manhattan has exploded $5,000 per month This year. When potential tenants stumble upon an apartment offered at a good price, they may feel like time is running out – and that works in the crooks’ favor, says Kelly Merryman, president and chief operating officer of the digital security firm Will have.
“Scammers prey on people who are anxious and want a better deal,” Merryman said.
Take Kate Coley, who in the summer of 2020 was desperate to find a home of her own after hunkering down with her parents during the early months of the pandemic. The fresh college grad found an apartment in the exact neighborhood of Chicago that she wanted to appear on a real estate rental site for a good price. When the “landlord” said she had to post her deposit and the first month’s rent immediately because the demand for the accommodation was so high, her enthusiasm won out.
“I thought I was smart enough to know the difference between a real apartment and a scam apartment,” Coley said.
No one is safe from real estate scams. But with a few safeguards, you can avoid online scammers when looking for your next home.
If you type the address of the unit into a search engine, you will likely see listings on other real estate sites. Check to see if the name of the landlord or real estate agent matches each. (If not, your “owner” could be spoofing a legitimate ad.)
If you are looking for a place to rent and you see it listed on another site, that is also a red flag.
Verify the identity of the advertiser
If you are dealing with a landlord, check to see if they own the property by contacting the local assessor’s office or county clerk.
If the unit was listed by a real estate agent or property manager, ask what company they work for and look up their name and picture on that company’s website. The agent or company should also have online reviews. If you’re feeling anxious, don’t hesitate to contact the company and ask if the agent or manager works there. And you can always look up someone’s real estate license by asking for their license number and cross-checking with your state’s licensing authority. (To find mine, for example, I searched online for “California real estate licenses.”)
Remember: Owners and agents aren’t the only ones allowed to ask questions and dig.
“You have rights too,” Merryman said. “You don’t have to just follow what they ask. You can ask questions back, and you should.
If a landlord pressures you to submit a deposit or share personal information like a bank statement or Social Security number before you’ve seen the unit, go ahead and raise an eyebrow, Merryman said. Even if the landlord claims they have to verify you are a qualified tenant before meeting with you, Aura hears from people who submit these details and then are ghosted, she said, and scammers can use this information to other fraud or identity theft.
If possible, visit the unit in person
Fraudsters take advantage of anonymity on the Internet. But the payoff from real estate scams is high, so some may venture into the real world.
“The scammers are willing to go to great lengths in many cases to make the scam very convincing, going so far as to meet you on the spot in some cases,” says Kevin Roundy, fraud researcher at the cybersecurity firm NortonLifeLock.
Always meet the agents or owners at the unit and make sure they have a key to enter. (Chat outside on the sidewalk isn’t enough.) Feel free to ask for their license plate number or ID to further verify who they are, Roundy said.
If you live out of town and can’t travel to view a property, request a visit via video call and take extra steps to verify the identity of the owner or agent. Cross-check the listing you find with a reliable Multiple Listing Service (MLS) directory, advised Deanne Rymarowicz, associate attorney at the National Association of Realtors. (I searched for “San Francisco MLS.”) A legitimate realtor should be able to send you a PDF of the full MLS listing, which is only available to real estate professionals, Rymarowicz said.
Many property managers use online portals to process payments, so if a manager or agent asks you to send money to their personal Venmo or Zelle account, it’s worth asking a few more questions, says Rymarowicz. .
The safest way to send money in this case is probably direct deposit in which the recipient provides their account number. Writing a personal check also provides additional security, as you can call your bank and void the check if there are concerns about your search for the identity of the advertiser.
Remember: Zelle and other money sending apps without payment protection work like cash: once you send it, it’s gone. (PayPal and Venmo offer payment protection for transactions you designate as “goods and services”, but this does not extend to real estate.)
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