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Renting an apartment or a single-family home may seem easier than buying one, especially as so much of the process is now streamlined online.
Easier, however, isn't always safer. More than 43 percent of renters have found listings that seem fraudulent, and more than 5 million have been scammed, often losing thousands of dollars, according to a new report from Apartment List, a rental listing website.
The most common scams include the "bait-and-switch," which is when a different property is advertised than the one that is actually available. The scammer tries to collect a deposit or get a lease signed for this property.
Another is the "hijacked ad," which can even happen on homes that are legitimately for sale. The scammer poses as a fake landlord, advertising the for-sale home, but changing the contact information. Another scam is listing a property that is already leased and then trying to collect application fees or security deposits.
Some scams also happen on legitimate listings. The landlord will advertise amenities that don't actually exist and then try to collect higher rent before the applicant realizes they are missing. Once the lease is signed, it becomes more difficult for the renter to get out of the deal. Of renters who have lost money in rental scams, 1 in 3 have lost more than $1,000, most often from paying a security deposit or rent on a fraudulent property.
"I think what really surprised us was just the prevalence of different variety of scams out there, " said Igor Popov, chief economist at Apartment List. "It is surprising how many people have fallen for these types of scams. Over 5.2 million renters out there have either put down an application fee, or a security deposit, or maybe even first month's rent, usually sight unseen."
And that is because so much of the rental process is now online, from searching to sending security deposits, to paying the monthly rent itself. It may also be that simply more Americans are renting. The renter rate rose from 33 percent in 2006 to 37 percent in 2016 (the latest data available), according to a new report from Zillow. In 39 of the nation's 50 largest cities, the majority of residents rent.
Younger renters are more susceptible to scams, especially since they tend to be moving city to city more often, potentially for a new job. Competition in the rental market also exacerbates the problem, making renters overlook basic safeguards.
"There are lots of cases where there's a lot of urgency too in the rental market, especially in some of the really supply concerned markets that are out there, where you have 10 renters fighting for one available apartment. In reality there's a lot of urgency and I think scammers can also sometimes prey on this," said Popov.
Patrick Baur is a renter in the red-hot San Francisco market and knew all too well the competition he faced. He and his wife found a listing on Craig's List that looked too good to be true, because it was.
"We came across a listing and it was really was reasonable in price, and we said wow it would be great if we could get it at that price. That's lower than most of what we've been seeing, unless you want to go out to the boonies somewhere," said Baur. "I think when you're under pressure like we were, we just thought well maybe this is a really good deal, maybe this is our opportunity and we don't want to miss this, and the listing had just gone up."
It turned out that the listing was a double listing, a real listing that a scammer had relisted at a lower price. Baur had emailed back and forth with the scammer, who had a very detailed backstory on the listing and seemed legitimate. It was when Baur tried to call the number on the listing, that he smelled a rat. The number was odd, as was the voice message. Then his wife looked up the property management company for the listing, called them and they said they had no knowledge of the people who were on the listing.
"Fortunately for us, we hadn't given them any money, we had given them very little information, so we got out of it fairly cleanly, but we were close to potentially moving forward with it. If that phone call had worked out somehow or if they had a little bit better set-up in that regard, it's possible that we could have been fooled to going on a little bit further, so that was very scary and very eye-opening I would say," said Baur.
That is why it is so important to research the listing beyond its face value. Call the management company for the property or call the building itself if it is an apartment. If possible, tour the property first, to make sure all the amenities are what they say they are. And finally, just be aware of the fundamentals of the market.
"The better a renter understands the trends and the norms in the market they're in, the less susceptible they'll be to fraud," said Popov. "I think often those that are very familiar with what is too good to be true, versus what might be kind of trying to lure them in a honey trap, those people will fare better."