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Pandemic Boosts the Popularity of Online Rental Scams

More crooks scrape your for-sale or for-rent ads, change contact info and try to scam renters out of money – a crime tactic that works even better during the pandemic.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – The number of online rental scams has increased since the pandemic started, largely because the inability to see an apartment or home before moving in raises fewer red flags in the era of social distancing.

Local authorities, Better Business Bureau’s local offices, and real estate companies warn renters looking for apartments to be extra diligent in their search and educate themselves on how to protect against rental scams – but the scammers still sometimes succeed.

The scam isn’t difficult to pull off. Criminals find active listings for homes either for sale or for rent and copy them. They then re-post the ads as rentals and change a few details, such as a contact name for more information. In general, they post a rental price notably below comparable area rentals to create angst in excited renters who want to move quickly. In fact, a price that’s too good to be true is the first red flag renters should consider.

Signs that an ad might be a scam include: typos or excessive punctuation, a request to wire money up-front without signing a contract and/or the absence of any type of screening process. In some cases, the scammers aren’t trying to get a deposit or rent upfront; instead, they require money for a pre-payment credit check, which should raise suspicion if it gets paid through a referral link.

To avoid scams, renters should look for verified listings, which come directly from property managers or owners. Additionally, renters can do a reverse Google search using one of the photos from the listing. The search results should show any other websites where that image appears.

Even during the pandemic, it’s important to visit the apartment in-person, which can be a self-guided tour. Many property managers will also conduct virtual apartment tours for prospective renters, but even then, it’s still advisable to visit the apartment and community in person.

To help other renters and the community, renters who discover fraudulent listings should report them to the proper authorities who can investigate and resolve the issue, including the Federal Trade Commission, the Internet Crime Complaint Center, as well as local law enforcement agencies.

RentCafe.com also created a guide for renters navigating the sea of online real estate ads.

“The concerns renters have when navigating through rental ads – especially now as apartment-hunting is largely conducted online – prompted us to create this comprehensive guide with all they need to know about scams,” says Esther Bonardi, vice president of marketing at Yardi.

© 2020 Florida Realtors®