5 ways to avoid an apartment scam on Zillow and Craigslist

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When Tommy Stella and his cousin found an affordable rental home in their Upstate New York area, it looked like they had hit the jackpot.

Their imaginations ran wild: they would have enough space for an office dedicated to work from home, they could have had a video game room and even dinners, 28-year-old Stella said.

Stella contacted the listed landlord and quickly received an email. “I’m very new to this owner 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 for you to take it as your own.”

The alleged landlord, who identified himself as a Catholic missionary, sent out a list of “questions about the application,” including whether Stella agreed to send a $ 1,000 security deposit before she moved. No problem, Stella replied, but could they visit the house first?

Then he got suspicious. He googled the address of the house and found it for sale on Zillow. His “landlord” was a scammer who had extracted the photos and details of the house from a legitimate ad.

It wasn’t the only fake ad Stella stumbled upon in her search for a cheap place to live, she said.

Scammers are using the tight housing market to lure you into their trap. Help Desk reporter Tatum Hunter shares red flags and how to avoid common pitfalls. (Video: The Washington Post)

Today, browsing real estate scams is part of the process for potential renters looking for a home online. And the continuing rise in house prices amid inflation and supply woes makes people more vulnerable as they scramble to find something within their budgets, fraud experts say.

The average rent in the United States grew 9.2 percent over 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 rise in rental prices is even more pronounced: the average rent in Manhattan this year exceeded $ 5,000 a month. When prospective renters come across a well-priced listed apartment, they may feel like time is running out and that works in favor of scammers, says Kelly Merryman, president and chief operating officer of digital security firm Aura.

“The scammers feed on anxious people and want a better deal,” Merryman said.

Take Kate Coley, who in the summer of 2020 was desperate for a place of her own after crouching at her parents’ house during the early months of the pandemic. The new graduate found an apartment in the exact Chicago neighborhood she wanted listed on a real estate rental site at a good price. When the “landlord” said she should immediately send her her deposit and first month’s rent because demand for the unit was so high, her excitement won her.

“I thought I was smart enough to know the difference between a real apartment and a scam apartment,” Coley said.

Nobody is safe from real estate scams. But with a few safeguards, you can evade online scammers as you search for your next place to live.

Yes, it’s a scam – simple tips to help you spot online fraud

If you enter the address of the unit in a search engine, you will likely see ads on other real estate sites. Check to see if the owner’s or real estate agent’s name matches each of them. (If not, your “owner” could spoof a legitimate ad.)

If you are looking at a rental unit and see it for sale on another site, this is also a red flag.

Verify the listener’s identity

If you are dealing with a landlord, verify ownership of the property by contacting the local tax inspector’s office or county clerk.

If the unit was listed by a real estate agent or property manager, ask which company they work for and look up 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 asking for 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: owners and agents aren’t the only ones allowed to ask questions and dig.

“You have rights too,” said Merryman. “You don’t have to just follow what they are asking. You can answer the questions and you should. “

If a landlord is pressuring you to send 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 though the landlord says they need to verify that you are a qualified renter before meeting you, Aura hears people who send those details and then come ghosted, she said, and scammers can use that information for further fraud or identity theft.

Scams are appearing at the top of online searches

If possible, see the unit for yourself

Scammers take advantage of the anonymity of the internet. But the payoff from real estate scams is high, so some will risk venturing into the real world.

“Scammers are willing to spend a lot of effort in many cases to make the scam very convincing, even going so far as to meet you at the facility in some cases,” says Kevin Roundy, a fraud researcher at cybersecurity firm NortonLifeLock. .

Always meet agents or owners at the unit and make sure they have a key to enter. (Chatting outside on the curb doesn’t solve the problem.) Feel free to ask for your license plate number or ID to further verify who they are, Roundy said.

If you live outside the city and cannot travel to visit a property, ask for a tour via video call and take additional steps to verify the identity of the owner or agent. Cross-check the listing you found with a reputable Multiple Listing Service (MLS) directory, advised Deanne Rymarowicz, legal counsel at 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, available only 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 orzelle account, it’s worth asking a few extra questions, according to Rymarowicz.

The safest way to send money in this case is probably through a direct deposit where the recipient provides their account number. Writing a personal check also offers some extra security, as you can call your bank and cancel the check if your research on the advertiser’s identity raises doubts.

Remember: zelle and other apps for sending money without payment protection work just like cash – once sent, it’s gone. (PayPal and Venmo offer payment protection for transactions designated as “goods and services,” but this does not extend to real estate.)

The non-stop scam economy is costing us more than just money