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How to Avoid Apartment and Other Home Rental Scams

Below-market prices and urgent payment demands are among the warning signs

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You find the perfect listing on a well-known apartment rental site, but after you send an application fee, the self-described landlord stops taking your calls. Or you pay a deposit for a new place only to show up at an apartment that’s already occupied.

Those are among the types of property rental scams reported to the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline in recent years, says Amy Nofziger, the network’s director of victim support.

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Experts say these scams take two common forms: Scammers either copy legitimate rental listings and pass off duplicate photos and property descriptions as their own, or they create listings for properties that aren’t for rent or don’t exist.

In both cases the goal is a quick cash grab. The criminal will demand money (typically claiming it’s for rent, a deposit or an application fee) and cut off communication as soon as they’re paid — leaving you to restart your search sans funds.

Such scams are not uncommon, and the financial impact can be significant. In 2023, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received 9,521 real estate crime reports, amounting to more than $145 million in victim losses.

While the agency doesn’t break down the numbers for rental scams specifically, a 2022 survey of more than 400 renters conducted by the rental listing site Dwellsy found that nearly 23 percent of respondents had personally experienced rental fraud resulting in financial loss in the past 12 months, with an average loss of $2,890 per victim.

In an era of internet house hunting and soaring rent prices, Nofziger warns that scammers know how to leverage online listings to their advantage. “When [an ad] is online in text, and there are shiny pictures, our emotions take over and we think, Wow, we found that one needle in the haystack,” she says. But renter beware: Enticing amenities and low rent are often red flags.

There are also scams involving vacation home rentals; find out more about them, and other travel-related scams, here.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

Warning signs of an apartment rental scam

Here are six signs that you should approach a rental opportunity with caution:

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1. Below-market rent. This is the biggest red flag, says Melanie McGovern, director of public relations and social media for the International Association of Better Business Bureaus. Scammers know that renters are looking for a good deal, so they’ll tout too-good-to-be-true prices and other amenities.

2. Ads that don’t add up. Pay close attention to listing inconsistencies, such as photos with watermarks for an unrelated website or management company. If the same listing is posted on multiple websites, it’s not necessarily a sign of fraud, but be wary if different ads contain different information, such as pricing details (or if you notice that a unit listed for rent on one site is for sale on another).

3. Demands for up-front payment. Scammers will ask for payment before allowing you to see the property. Other than a nominal application fee (more on those below), “nothing should be due until the lease is signed,” says Alexandra Alvarado, director of marketing and education for the American Apartment Owners Association, the country’s largest landlord association.

4. Nonrefundable payment methods. Requests to wire money, pay with gift cards or send cryptocurrency are classic scam tactics, warns the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Individual landlords may collect rent or deposits via a peer-to-peer money transfer app such as Venmo or Zelle, but they shouldn’t demand payment before you sign a lease — and you can always ask if they’ll accept another method, such as a check or bank transfer, McGovern says.

5. A sense of urgency or pressure. Scammers want you to act fast and pay quickly. They may share an outlandish story about why they are unable to give a tour or meet in person, such as a sudden move abroad or family emergency. “[If] you have a gut feeling something is wrong, you need to listen to it,” Nofziger says.

6. Poor communication. Take note if someone insists on communicating exclusively by email or text, or is reluctant to answer basic questions about the property. Reputable landlords and property managers should be willing to answer any reasonable question about the apartment and rental process, Alvarado says.

Protect yourself from an apartment rental scam

  • Research the property. The FTC suggests searching for the rental location’s address, along with the name of the property owner or rental company. “If other ads come up for the same address but with a different owner or rental company name, that’s a sign of a scam,” the agency notes. You can also use an online map to make sure the property exterior matches the listing photos.
  • Check landlord reviews. Search for the name of the owner or property manager online (the FTC advises adding the words “complaint,” “review,” or “scam” to pull up relevant results).
  • See the property in person, if possible. Always tour a property before signing a lease or making payments of any kind. If you’re moving from out of town, ask the landlord for a tour via video call or have a friend visit the property on your behalf. If the alleged owner won’t agree to meet or talk? “Walk away,” says McGovern.
  • Understand the application process. Application fees are used to cover the cost of processing a rental application or conducting a background or credit check, but reputable landlords won’t insist on outrageous sums or ask you to pay before a tour.
    It’s a good sign if a landlord uses a screening website to conduct these checks, Alvarado says, since your personal information and payment are submitted directly to the screening service. (And fees should be reasonable: Zillow’s online application starts at $35 for tenants, and TransUnion’s SmartMove screening starts at $25.)
  • Don’t pay a deposit before lease signing. Always review a lease before signing (the deposit amount should be noted) and refuse vague terms or assurances that the landlord will complete the lease after receiving a deposit. The majority of states have laws limiting deposit amounts, often to the equivalent of one to two month’s rent. 
Video: 3 Real Estate Scams to Look Out For

If you’ve been targeted

  • Report lost funds. File a fraud claim with the bank, wire transfer service or mobile payment app you used to send money. The FTC offers a guide to reporting fraud by payment type, including gift cards and cryptocurrency. Prompt filing helps payment processors crack down on fraud, but Nofziger cautions that it may be impossible to recover money once it is sent.
  • Report the listing. Report the fraudulent listing to the website where you found it. Rental scams should also be reported to the FTC at reportfraud.ftc.gov and to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov; consider contacting your local law enforcement agency and state consumer protection office or attorney general.
    Even if you didn’t hand over money, McGovern says that reporting attempted scams to services like BBB Scam Tracker helps the experts track fraud and alert others.
  • Protect your identity. Rental scammers are typically seeking payment, but they may ask for personal information. If you shared your Social Security number, Nofziger advises placing a fraud alert on your credit report. You might also freeze your credit. Identity theft should be reported to the FTC at www.identitytheft.gov or by calling 877-438-4338.

Resources

The AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline, 877-908-3360, offers free support from trained fraud specialists.

The Better Business Bureau compiles listings and ratings for rental sites and property management companies.

Platforms like CraigslistZillowRent and Apartments.com offer site-specific guides to avoiding and reporting scams.​​

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9 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.
  5. A request to wire money, send it via Western Union or MoneyGram or pay with gift cards or bitcoin. The funds requested may be called a security deposit, move-in fee or rent.
  6. A check for the wrong amount. Do not accept overpayment from a would-be tenant for a property you list. If you get such a check, return it. Do not deposit it.
  7. 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.
  8. A claim of affiliation with Apartments.com or another established site, which could be just another falsehood.
  9. 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?’”

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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.