Imagine getting a call out of the blue one night asking for you by name. Initially fearing it’s a sales call or some other bit of unsolicited business, you’re quickly intrigued when the voice on the other end asks if you’re apartment or home is up for rent. You say no. The caller then peppers you with questions, verifying your full name, your address and specifics about the number of bedrooms and baths in your home. The caller has the correct information for all of these inquiries, the only point they get wrong…your home is not actually for rent. The caller then informs you that they were doing a little research, because your dwelling is currently being offered cheaply on a popular online rental site under your own name.
Sound far-fetched? This is exactly what happened to Beth Ann Bovino in New York City as she described in an entry posted at 3quarksdaily.blogs.com. Some of the particulars were at fault, for example she lived in a 5th floor walk-up, not an elevator building. The interior pictures on the listing were not actually her apartment, but the exterior picture presented was indeed her building. Curious, she sent a message pretending to the interested to firstname.lastname@example.org, an email address she had never seen before.
In no time she was getting the same song and dance as did others who were interested in the apartment. The “owner” was in California and desperate to rent the apartment, she requested one month’s rent in advance and promised to send the keys upon receipt, telling her she could move in the day she got the keys. When the real Beth Ann asked to see the space first, she got a confusing email saying that wouldn’t be possible, but offering a reduction in rent with the promise of UPSing the keys on the same day the reduced first month’s rent was forwarded
The real Beth Ann Bovino pushed further; claiming she wasn’t comfortable without talking to someone, she asked to speak with the “owner” on the phone. The “owner” then got back to her with a common sob story in these sorts of scams: She couldn’t talk on the phone because she was a deaf-mute; in fact, she was in California teaching at a school for deaf-mutes, which is why she was trying to sell the apartment so quickly.
At this point, the genuine Beth Ann Bovino went to the authorities, as well as the rental website. She also fielded several calls and drop-by visits from others who had been interested in this steal of a rental deal and told them the truth. For all those who did follow up with the real Beth Ann Bovino there are certainly others who probably lost their judgment and reason in the face of a great opportunity, only the scammer knows how many she was able to extract money from before her listing was finally removed.
This story is not an isolated case. Rental frauds of this type are growing more common, especially with so many consumers heading to online rental sites in the hopes of avoiding huge broker/agent fees. But you’ve got to be careful, because some of these listings might as well be claiming, “We’ve got a bridge to sell you!” At the end of the day, you end up with nothing but a reduced bank account.
Here are some common red flags for these rental scams.
1.Residence Unknown – The owner is not living locally. They are overseeing the entire transaction from another state, or another country. Normally, this is part of the pitch, explaining why they are looking to rent it so cheap and so quickly. Also, they use this to explain the required one month upfront deposit before sending the keys to you.
2.Reduced Rates Now – They will normally offer a rent that is significantly below market value, and there is normally a pressing time constraint as to getting the apartment rented.
3.No Visits – They won’t be able to offer you any sort of walk-through of the space for rent, with either a relative, a nearby friend of theirs, or a super.
4.No Calls – They won’t be able to talk on the phone. As outrageous as the owner’s deaf-mute claim sounded in the previous story, it actually regularly pops up in these scams when potential renters request to speak with them over the phone.
5.Pay Please – They request money up front. Not an outrageous amount, considering most are expecting to pay first and last month’s rent, plus a security deposit, along with a broker’s fee. The one month in advance, at what seems like a bargain of a monthly rental fee, is probably too good to pass up for some folks, and seems like a small risk. It’s still going to be well over a thousand bucks thrown away.
6.Legitimate Company – If contracts are offered, look at them closely. Is the company name even approaching legitimate. Often, they will simply copy from the listing or ad, the company name reading, Charming and Cozy Downtown Apartment, or the like.
7.Errors – They will often have multiple errors in the rental dates, prices quoted and other details in the paperwork. These con artists are normally running multiple cons and can’t keep up with the paperwork. Also, unlike legitimate realtor’s they don’t have attorneys or other professionals reviewing the contracts before they get sent out. Hence, the red flag.
There are plenty of legitimate listings, at great savings, on these rental websites. If you plan on utilizing one, please take extra care with your due diligence. Check the property tax records, make sure the person claiming to be the owner, really is the owner. Find a telephone number for the name and address listed and give it a call. Drop by the listed rental address. It might not exist. If it does, knock on the door. The real owner might be surprised to find out their home is now being used as part of a scam. If no one is at home, check with the neighbors who might know the real story. Never send a money order or wire transfer without the keys in your hand. And make sure those keys are actually for the space you are renting. A smart renter is a happy renter. So use your head.