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How to Protect Yourself When Renting a Property

When your deposit disappears, what can you do?

Burley: Apartment locator fees

Consumer Advocate Ron Burley

You can't win them all, and I am sometimes relegated to the role of cautionary-tale teller. All Susan Weems wanted was to spend a few months in Arizona. The 63-year-old AARP member shelled out $2,195 via cashier's check to Apartment Locators of Tucson as a rental deposit for a home. She became worried when a rental contract didn't arrive. Weems says the agency's manager, Mary Anne Shaw, told her the "rental application was the contract."

"That made me uneasy," Weems says. "From then on, she didn't respond to any of my queries."

When we reached Shaw, she claimed Weems' attitude was the real problem and that "we may just have to reimburse her the deposit," adding she'd need the property owner's permission. We then discovered the property owner planned to sell rather than rent. We found the new listing agent, who said the owner had sent Shaw a letter indicating his intentions more than a month before my phone conversation.

Emails and phone calls to Apartment Locators went unanswered, and Weems' refund never came. Our inquiries did have some effect, though: It wasn't long before the company's local phone number was disconnected. Here's what you can do to protect yourself.

Pay with plastic. Most credit cards limit your fraud exposure to just $50.

Verify the destination of the deposit. Most states require rental deposits to be held in trust accounts.

Shun high-pressure salespeople.

Consumer advocate Ron Burley writes the On Your Side column for AARP and is the author of  Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For. Got a complaint? Tell your consumer woes to Ron at aarp.org/ronburley.

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