When Tommy Stella and his cousin found an affordable house for rent in their area of Upstate New York, it felt like they’d hit the jackpot.
Stella contacted the landlord named on the listing and quickly got an email back. “I am very new in this landlord business,” the person wrote, according to emails Stella shared with The Washington Post. “We are not after the money, but want it to be clean and for you to take it as if it were yours.”
The purported landlord, who identified himself as a Catholic missionary, sent over a list of “application questions,” including whether Stella agreed to send a $1,000 security deposit before moving in. No problem, Stella responded, but could they tour the house first?
Then he got suspicious. He Googled the house’s address and found it for sale on Zillow. His “landlord” was a scammer that had pulled the home’s photos and details from a legitimate listing.
It wasn’t the only fake listing Stella came across in his hunt for an affordable place to live, he said.
Today, navigating real estate scams is part of the process for prospective renters looking for homes online. And the sustained spike in housing prices amid inflation and supply problems makes people more vulnerable as they scramble to find something within their budgets, fraud experts say.
Average rent in the United States grew 9.2 percent during the three months ended June 30, compared with the same period last year, according to data from commercial real estate company CoStar. In large metropolitan areas, the pop in rent prices is even more pronounced: The average rent in Manhattan broke $5,000 a month this year. When potential renters come across an apartment listed for a good price, they might feel like the clock is ticking — and that works in scammers’ favor, says Kelly Merryman, president and chief operating officer of digital safety company Aura.
“Scammers are feeding on people who are anxious and want a better deal,” Merryman said.
Take Kate Coley, who in summer of 2020 was desperate to find a place of her own after hunkering down at her parents’ house during the early months of the pandemic. The new college graduate found an apartment in the exact Chicago neighborhood she wanted listed on a real-estate rental site for a good price. When the “landlord” said she’d need to send her deposit and the first month’s rent right away because demand for the unit was so high, her excitement won out.
“I thought I was smart enough to know the difference between a real apartment and a scam apartment,” Coley said.
Nobody’s safe from real estate scams. But with a few safeguards, you can sidestep online fraudsters as you look for your next place to live.
If you punch the unit’s address into a search engine, you’ll probably see listings on other real estate sites. Check to see if the landlord or real estate agent’s name matches on each one. (If it doesn’t, your “landlord” might be spoofing a legitimate listing.)
If you’re looking at a unit for rent and see it listed for sale on a different site, that’s also a red flag.
Verify the lister’s identity
If you’re dealing with a landlord, check for proof they own the property by contacting the local tax assessor’s office or county clerk.
If the unit was listed by a real estate agent or property manager, ask which company they work for and look for their name and image on that company’s website. The agent or company should have online reviews, as well. If you’re feeling anxious, feel free to contact the company and ask if the agent or manager works there. And you can always look up someone’s real estate license by asking for their license number and cross checking with your state’s licensing authority. (To find mine, for instance, I searched online for “California real estate licenses.”)
Remember: Landlords and agents aren’t the only ones allowed to ask questions and do some digging.
“You have rights, too,” Merryman said. “You don’t have to just follow what they’re asking. You can ask questions back, and you should.”
If a landlord is pressuring you to submit a deposit or share personal information like a bank statement or Social Security Number before you’ve seen the unit, go ahead and raise an eyebrow, Merryman said. Even if the landlord claims they must check that you’re a qualified renter before meeting with you, Aura hears from people who submit those details then get ghosted, she said, and scammers can use that information for further fraud or identity theft.
If possible, view the unit in person
Fraudsters take advantage of internet anonymity. But the payoff from real estate scams is high, so some will risk venturing into the real world.
“Scammers are willing to spend quite a bit of effort in many cases to make the scam very convincing, going so far as meeting you at the property in some cases,” says Kevin Roundy, a fraud researcher at the cybersecurity company NortonLifeLock.
Always meet agents or landlords at the unit, and make sure they have a key to get inside. (Chatting outside on the sidewalk doesn’t cut it.) Feel free to ask for their license plate number or ID to further verify who they are, Roundy said.
If you live out of town and can’t travel to tour a property, ask for a tour over video call, and take extra steps to verify the landlord or agent’s identity. Cross-check the listing you found with a trustworthy multiple listing service (MLS) directory, advised Deanne Rymarowicz, associate counsel at the National Association of Realtors. (I searched for “San Francisco MLS.”) A legitimate real estate agent should be able to send you a PDF of the full MLS listing, which is only available to real estate professionals, Rymarowicz said.
Many property managers use online portals to process payments, so if a manager or agent is asking you to send money to their personal Venmo or Zelle account, it’s worth asking some extra questions, according to Rymarowicz.
The most secure way to send money in this case is probably through a direct deposit in which the recipient provides their account number. Writing a personal check also lends some extra security, as you can call your bank and cancel the check if your research into the lister’s identity brings up any concerns.
Remember: Zelle and other money-sending apps without payment protection work just like cash — once you send it, it’s gone. (PayPal and Venmo offer payment protection for transactions you designate as “good and services,” but that doesn’t extend to real estate.)