En español | The scam starts with a “hijacked” ad for a rental apartment. A criminal steals an authentic listing and changes the contact information to his. Or creates a “phantom” listing for an apartment or condo that doesn't even exist. With attractive photos, enticing amenities and below-market rental rates, the ads are clickbait for people searching for a place to live.
A 53-year-old property owner in Pennsylvania got an education on rental scams the hard way. A bad actor co-opted an Airbnb ad for the two-bedroom Philadelphia apartment the owner had on offer. The crook even rented the place briefly. But before he collected the keys, he copied the digital photos of the unit and advertised on another platform, looking for someone to sublet one of the bedrooms for a year, says the apartment's owner, George Ryzinsky, president of DAN Housing in Southampton, which is in Pennsylvania's Bucks County.
Three people took the bait, gave the fraudster a total of $1,300 in advance to secure the space, and on the same day — when all three showed up — were left with no place to stay, the owner says.
'Spanked’ by fraudster
"We got spanked so bad on that case,” Ryzinsky tells AARP. He says he felt so sorry for the out-of-luck tenants that he put them up in a three-bedroom unit that he owns elsewhere and gave them a month's free rent. Since then he has taken the jinxed unit off Airbnb and changed its locks.
Amid COVID-19, it’s a scam
Apartments.com, a leading site for rental listings, provided this actual email to AARP. It’s rife with red flags, including multiple grammar and punctuation mistakes that are possible indicators fraud.
Note: The sender won’t meet the perspective tenant in person — and offers a virtual showing of the rental unit only after a lease is signed.
Sham listings — and stolen ones — are a coast-to-coast scourge, by no means restricted to major cities with tight rental markets, news accounts show. Yet it's unclear how widespread the problem is. Last year the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), which is accessible online, took in 11,677 reports on real estate/rental crimes with $221 million in losses, but the bureau does not break out the figures for rental-listing scams alone.
These cases are not always one-offs. In California, a group of people defrauded more than 100,000 would-be renters and homebuyers out of more than $25 million from 2009 to 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said last year, when a second defendant in the case was sentenced to prison. Their victims, from all 50 states, included more than 100 people in southern Illinois alone.
A spike in cases amid the pandemic
During the pandemic, such scams have trigged more calls to AARP's toll-free Fraud Watch Network Helpline, 877-908-3360. A few of this year's cases:
• A woman in New York found a rental apartment in Los Angeles on Craigslist and lined up a friend to give it a once-over in person. But before the inspection, the New Yorker wired $2,000 in “rental fees” to a person who turned out to be a con artist. The sad truth: The apartment — a phantom rental — didn't exist.
• A California woman found a “fantastic” place on Craigslist. The person behind the listing demanded $500 via Zelle's instant payment app and the would-be renter complied. It dawned on her after she sent the money that it all was a sham.
• Another California woman found an apartment and applied for it online, giving her debit card information. On move-in day, she stepped into a mold-tainted apartment that needed remediation and other repairs. The unit wasn't even in the advertised neighborhood. Her plan? To get out as soon as she could.
• A Texas couple saw a rental sign for a house they loved and were asked to send a security deposit using Zelle, and did; later they were asked for more cash for “rental fees” — and only then smelled a scam.
The federal government's temporary halt to most residential evictions, intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, is slated to end Dec. 31, and this could trigger a wave of people on the hunt for a rental — or roommate.
AARP's Amy Nofziger, who oversees the helpline, says such complaints have risen during the pandemic. Scammers are online touting properties for rent “sight unseen,” saying prospective tenants can't enter the premises due to COVID-19, she says.
That's not exactly true, says Kelsey Blakely, senior director of online security for Apartments.com, which dates to 1995 and touts more than 1 million rental listings in the U.S. “If I was talking to you a year ago, I would say you always want to make sure that someone (offering a rental) will meet you in person,” she says. Now, instead, there's a “huge increase” in virtual tours, such as 360-degree tours, prerecorded video tours and live, remote tours via FaceTime, Zoom and other platforms, she says. And many places offer self-guided tours.
During COVID-19, con artists — some of them overseas — have been inventing “sob stories” to excuse not meeting face-to-face, Blakely says. “They'll say things like, ‘I have COVID, my wife has COVID, so I can't meet you. I can't videoconference with you.’ They really prefer to communicate by email and text."
Even if you are allowed to visit a unit in advance, don't let your guard down, says Blakely, since “we have had cases where people have physically toured a property, and then sent a security deposit to a fake landlord."
Apartments.com does not divulge how often it finds fraudulent listings on its site, but uses security protocols to ferret them out and tells users to exercise caution. Blakely says the frauds comprise “quite a small percentage” of all listings, but acknowledges that no system is foolproof, as reflected in an Apartments.com disclaimer saying that it “cannot guarantee that our sites are 100 percent free from false or fraudulent listings."
Fraudsters, she notes, zero in on people who are vulnerable or have an urgent need to move fast, such as divorcees, single parents or students.
At Airbnb, a spokesperson urged travelers to “help keep themselves, their payments, and their personal information protected by staying on Airbnb's secure platform throughout the entire process — from communication to booking and payment."
Airbnb will never ask travelers to pay for anything outside its website, such as via email or a third-party booker, the spokesperson added. Here's more of its advice on security and scams.
Craigslist did not respond to AARP's request for comment, but its site has this guidance about scams.
8 Red Flags of Rental Scams
Want to avoid a rental-listing scam? There is no one, easy thing to do. But industry experts say it’s critical to know the red flags.
1. A monthly rental payment below the market rate.
2. A listing with grammar or punctuation mistakes.
3. A landlord with a “dramatic” story. You might be told to drive by the building — but you can’t go in, because the owner is working abroad or is in a faraway place serving in the military or doing missionary work.
4. A refusal to speak or video chat, communicating only by text or email.
6. A sense of urgency. Scammers want you to act fast and move in immediately, even if you haven’t seen the premises. Some dangle the prospect of heavy interest from other prospective tenants.
7. A claim of affiliation with Apartments.com or another established site, which could be just another falsehood.
8. A hard sell. “Fraudsters are very persistent ... they just tend to be a little more aggressive,” says Kelsey Blakely, senior director of online security for Apartments.com. “Once they get a hold of your number, they’ll just be texting you all the time. And it’s like, ‘Hey, what do you think? Want to get this deal going?’”