There are lots of internet scams out there, especially when it comes to rental housing ads. I have some suggestions to help you to avoid falling victim. Here is how the fraud works… the scammer lures prospective tenants by posting very convincing ads on various legitimate rental websites using addresses and photos and descriptions of real San Francisco apartments and condos. They usually just copy the details and photos from properties that were recently advertised online for sale.
The scammer advertises these places on many web sites, often with rents that seem attractively low. Once you contact them, they will eventually ask you to provide confidential info or request that you apply or send money to them to secure your spot in order to arrange a showing appointment, don’t do it!
They even sometimes use the name of the legitimate local real estate agents and brokers. Presumably this is to confuse the prospective tenant in to thinking that they are dealing with a reputable person. Of course they conveniently include a bogus phone number and email link so that you communicate with the scammer directly and not with any actual legitimate agent.
Be sure you are using reputable rental sites (like LiveLovely.com or Trulia.com) and always keep your eyes open for red flags or things that don’t seem to add up. Although the reputable sites do get many fraud postings, they are more likely to remove those scams quickly when they get flagged.
Here is what you need to know…
If you contact an owner about an apartment and he or she is unwilling or unable to show you the apartment within a few days, move on. If there is a dramatic story about illness or death or distant family members causing a delay in the showing, move on. If the language that the “landlord” uses seems very odd to you, move on.
Never ever ever complete an application or send money to anyone until you have personally toured the apartment. Also when you do go to see an apartment, don’t go alone.
If you find a place that looks interesting, I suggest that you Google the address to see if there are other ads online for that address. Use a few versions of the address in your searches, like 123 Main Street #5, San Francisco or 123 Main St Apt 5 San Francisco. If your online search turns up some links to the same unit currently listed for sale on major real estate sites like Zillow.com or Realtor.com, then that’s a sign that the property may not actually be for rent and you are likely dealing with a fraudster. While it is possible that a property could be legitimately advertised for both sale and rent simultaneously, it is not the most likely scenario. In any event it would be easy enough to decipher by speaking with the actual agent representing the seller.
You should also Google the name of the agent, for example if the ad says to contact Patrick Lowell at Zephyr Real Estate for information, just Google that name to see if the phone number and website that you find online match what’s in the ad. If you are not sure if an ad is legitimate and you’ve searched for the agent’s name and found a phone number that is different, call it and speak with the agent. Often it is someone like me who can tell you right away that the ad is a scam and that they did not post it.
Bottom line, follow your gut, if something does not seem right, it probably isn’t. Trust your instincts.
Remember: NEVER send money or complete any application until you have toured an apartment in person.
Here is an example of an actual rental scam email, most of them follow a similar pattern: