En español | Carl Janvier, a student in greater Boston putting himself through college, scraped together $3,100 to rent a two-bedroom Cape Cod. At $500 a month, it seemed like a steal.
But the home was not a rental — it was for sale — and the 22-year-old architectural design student lost most of the money he thought was going toward the first month's rent and a security deposit. A criminal had hijacked the for-sale listing and pretended the place was his to rent.
"I've never been scammed before,” Janvier tells AARP. “This time I was totally blindsided. I just didn't see it coming."
Complaints jump during COVID-19
Lately consumers young and old have fallen prey to criminals exploiting the global health crisis and the tight rental markets seen in many locales.
"Throughout the pandemic, particularly late last year and into 2021, ourselves and other companies have seen an increase in fraud,” says Kelsey Blakely, senior director of online security for Apartments.com, which boasts more than 1 million rental listings. “It's been pretty consistent throughout the last six months."
AARP's Mark Fetterhoff, a fraud victim support adviser, adds: “Scammers follow the headlines, so it is no shock that they have started to target housing. The last year has brought about a booming real estate market, fears of eviction and a greater interest in short-term rentals. Opportunistic scammers have looked to housing listings and real estate transactions as a new way of finding victims. It is critical that people looking for housing of any sort exercise caution and pump the brakes if they notice the red flags of a scam."
Last year 13,638 victims of rental fraud and real-estate investment scams filed reports to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, ic3.gov. That is a 17 percent increase from the 11,677 victims in 2019. Losses dipped slightly in 2020 to $213 million, nearly 4 percent lower than $221 million the previous year. The FBI does not publicize rental fraud cases and losses alone, so how much havoc they wreak is hard to pinpoint.
Hopeful tenant left out in the cold
When Janvier looks back, he regrets that he never set foot in the home he coveted before he sent money to secure the promised rental. He says a crook posing as the owner hurried things along, had him sign a fake lease and — after Janvier sent money using Zelle and PayPal — promised to meet him at the home in Oxford, Massachusetts.
But the crook didn't show up on the day they were to meet. And when Janvier called the real estate agency on the for-sale sign in front of the house, they “told me that I was scammed.”
He complained about being defrauded to both PayPal and Zelle. PayPal returned his $500, he says, but Zelle refused to credit him for the $2,600 balance he had sent on its peer-to-peer payment app. In response to a query from AARP, Zelle spokeswoman Meghan Fintland said Tuesday it was investigating the issue and needed “more time to respond."
Zelle is meant for transactions with people you trust, such as family or friends, since once you authorize a payment, the money is irrevocable, says Fintland, who adds: “But these scams are there, too, these too good-to-be-true opportunities.” That’s one reason Zelle posts fraud and scam warnings.
"It was hell, I'm telling you, man,” Janvier says now. An assistant working at a psychiatric hospital, he says he had borrowed money to come up with the $3,100. Now he says it will take him months to save up that kind of money.
Janvier spoke to AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline, 877-908-3360, which is seeing a spike in reports of rental fraud cases.
Landlords are victims, too
The web is littered with fake rental listings, leaving not only prospective tenants aggrieved.
Mel, another Helpline caller, is a restaurateur from Long Island, New York. Twice in recent years he had his rental home's listing on Zillow copied by scammers and reposted on Craigslist, says Mel, who did not wish to be identified with his full name. This spring he listed his two-bedroom home on Zillow for rent for $3,000 a month and a woman contacted him asking if a Craigslist ad listing the same home for $2,000 was real. He told her the Craigslist post was bogus; fortunately, her careful vetting occurred before she sent the scammer any money.
Mel urges consumers to carefully vet properties for rent. “Be very thorough,” he says. “Don't just jump on the first thing that comes up. Don't do impulse renting."
Craigslist did not respond to a request for comment.
Zillow posts warnings about fraud on its website, and a company spokesperson says it “goes to great lengths to police activity and fully inform our users of the existence of scams and how to protect themselves. Our customer support team monitors activity on the site in a number of different ways and if a rental listing is found to be fraudulent, it is immediately removed from Zillow."
Money for nothing
Other calls to AARP's helpline:
- A woman in Richmond, Virginia, found an apartment listed on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace and used Cash App to send $1,700 to a phony landlord for a month's rent and security deposit — a total sham.
- A woman relocating to Cheyenne, Wyoming, liked a rental on Craigslist, filled out an application and sent $700 using Venmo along with her Social Security number and a photo of her driver's license. In hindsight it seemed sketchy that the man who sent her the lease agreement had her send her money to his “cousin."
- A woman gave a scammer $998 to secure a rental unit with her boyfriend. Both sent W-2 forms showing annual wages and taxes; pay stubs; photos; and copies of their driver's licenses. Later the couple discovered their contact “has nothing to do with the property” and in terms of rent “was asking much less than the actual owner."
The peak season for moving runs from April to September, so if you're thinking of pulling up stakes — or leasing a summer vacation spot — renters, beware. Every move or vacation promises new beginnings. But you must practice due diligence to deter the heartless criminals who are happy to take your money and personal information — then vanish — before you collect the keys.
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How to avoid a rental listing scam
Kelsey Blakely, 43, is senior director of online security for Apartments.com and leads a team of fraud investigators who harness tools including machine learning to fight fraud on the platform.
Speaking to AARP, she observes that fraudsters try to thwart the fail-safes and controls that companies use to keep them from infiltrating their sites.
"It's always going to be this whack-a-mole game,” she adds, since bad actors strive to adapt as quickly as businesses enact new defenses. “Companies like mine have to be especially diligent on how we protect our customers,” Blakely says.
Here's her advice on renting from a legit landlord:
- Fraudsters often post listings for single-family homes or townhomes in desirable areas and tout below-market rents. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” she says.
- They don't tend to advertise listings in luxury buildings; they prefer to zero in on vulnerable people seeking more modest housing.
- Fraudsters posing as landlords or property managers do not want to meet in person; they want to communicate via text messaging, an app or email.
- They pressure consumers to send them large sums of money upfront; some seek bitcoin or payment via an app.
- They may change instructions on where a consumer should send money for a rental unit. If you were dealing with John Doe, he'll tell you to pay Jane Smith. “That's typically a really big red flag,” Blakely says. “So it's a different email address, a different phone number, a totally different name. That should give you an indication that something is wrong."
- Potential renters should not act on a property sight unseen. A real landlord will find a way to show a unit in person or via Zoom, FaceTime or other technology. “And whatever you're seeing should match up on what you see on Google Maps and any of your other internet research,” she says.
- Renters should obtain a lease in advance, and that legal agreement should conform to the regulations where you live. Here are standard leases in Virginia, for example.
Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.