Stella contacted the listed owner and promptly received an email. “I am very new to this landlord business,” the person wrote, according to emails Stella shared with The Washington Post. “We are not looking for the money, but we want it to be clean and that you take it as if it were yours.”
The alleged landlord, who identified himself as a Catholic missionary, submitted a list of “application questions,” including whether Stella would agree to send a $1,000 security deposit before moving in. No problem, Stella answered, but could you go through the house first?
So he got suspicious. She Googled the address of the house and found it for sale on Zillow. Its “owner” was a scammer who had taken the photos and details of the house from a legitimate listing.
It wasn’t the only fake listing Stella found in her search for an affordable place to live, she said.
Today, navigating real estate scams is part of the process for prospective renters looking for homes online. And the sustained rise in house prices amid inflation and supply problems it makes people more vulnerable as they struggle to find something within their budgets, fraud experts say.
Average income in the United States grew 9.2 percent during the three months ended June 30, compared to the same period last year, according to data from commercial real estate company CoStar. In large metropolitan areas, the increase in rental prices is even more pronounced: the median rent in Manhattan exceeded $5,000 a month this year. When potential renters come across an apartment at a good price, they can feel like time is ticking, and that works in the scammers’ favor, says Kelly Merryman, president and COO of digital security company Aura.
“Scammers are preying on people who are anxious and want a better deal,” Merryman said.
Take Kate Coley, for example, who in the summer of 2020 was desperate to find a place of her own after sheltering in her parents’ home during the early months of the pandemic. The recent college graduate found an apartment in the exact Chicago neighborhood she wanted listed on a real estate rental site for a good price. When the “landlord” said that she would need to send her deposit and first month’s rent right away because demand for the unit was so high, her enthusiasm won out.
“I thought I was smart enough to know the difference between a real apartment and a fake apartment,” Coley said.
No one is safe from real estate scams. But with a few security measures, you can fend off online scammers as you search for your next place to live.
If you enter the unit’s address into a search engine, you’ll likely see listings on other real estate sites. Check to see if the name of the landlord or real estate agent matches on each. (If not, your “owner” could be spoofing a legitimate listing.)
If you are looking for a rental unit and see it listed for sale on a different site, that is also a red flag.
Verify the identity of the advertiser
If you are dealing with a landlord, verify if you own the property by contacting your local tax 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 for their name and image on that company’s website. The agent or company should also have online reviews. If you feel anxious, feel free 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 requesting their license number and checking with your state’s licensing authority. (To find mine, for example, I searched online for “California real estate licenses”).
Remember: Landlords and agents aren’t the only ones who can ask questions and do some research.
“You have rights too,” Merryman said. “You don’t have to just follow what they ask of you. You can ask questions back, and you should.”
If a landlord pressures you to send a deposit or share personal information, such as a bank statement or Social Security number, before you’ve even seen the unit, go ahead and raise an eyebrow, Merryman said. Even if the landlord claims to verify that you are a qualified tenant before meeting with you, Aura listens to people who submit those details and then go phantom, she said, and scammers can use that information to commit further fraud or theft. of identity.
If possible, see the unit in person
Scammers take advantage of anonymity on the Internet. But the payoff for real estate scams is high, so some will risk venturing out into the real world.
“Scammers are willing to go to great lengths in many cases to make the scam very convincing, and in some cases they actually meet you at the property,” says Kevin Roundy, a fraud investigator at cybersecurity firm NortonLifeLock.
Always meet the agents or owners at the unit and make sure they have a key to enter. (Talking outside on the sidewalk is not enough.) Feel free to ask for their badge or identification number to verify who they are, Roundy said.
If you live out of town and cannot travel to tour a property, request a video call tour and take additional steps to verify the identity of the owner or agent. Check the listing you found against a trusted multiple listing service (MLS) directory, advised Deanne Rymarowicz, associate counsel for the National Association of Realtors. (I searched for “San Francisco MLS”.) A legitimate real estate agent 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 your personal Venmo or Zelle account, it’s worth asking a few extra questions, according to Rymarowicz.
The safest way to send money in this case is probably through direct deposit where the recipient provides their account number. Writing a personal check also provides some added security, as you can call your bank and cancel the check if your investigation into the identity of the person advertising the listing raises any concerns.
Remember: Zelle and other money transfer 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 that does not extend to real estate).