Many scammers take pictures from local properties and put them in the ads. Many times these are properties that have been sold or rented. Using pictures and facts from a local property can make their ad look so much more believable. In most cases, scammers get temporary phones so if they have asked you to send them money, they will be untraceable.
Here are some answers to questions from people who have encountered fake ads in the hopes they can keep you from potential bad situations:
Q: How do I know if an advertisement is truly a real home to rent?
A: Always check with someone who has local knowledge of the area like a real estate professional, a friend or a co-worker, especially if you are not from the area where the property is advertised. Anyone with local real estate knowledge will be able to tell if something looks not quite realistic for the location. A friend or co-worker can be helpful, but a real estate professional will be more familiar with the market. If a real estate professional does not know for sure, as these ads are tricky, they will be familiar with local property management companies. I had one client ask me to follow up on an ad they had found. I recognized the pictures and was able to find the true listing agent. They had rented the property months before. These things are easier for anyone with real-estate market knowledge to figure out.
Q: What do I do if an ad looks fishy?
A: Ask yourself what about the ad gives you pause. Look at the ad and see if the price, amenities, the apartment renovations look realistic compared to other rental properties in the area. Does the price seem too good to be true or does the property seem newer or nicer than you might expect for the price advertised? Does the ad make sense for the market? These basic questions will help you avoid many scams.
Q: The ad has a contact number and an email. How do you know if it’s legitimate?
A: If it is a property management company, ask around to see if anyone has ever heard of them before. If they are an individual, ask for proof that they own the property. In some cases, property owners don’t want to give their phone number initially. They may be afraid they will get hundreds of calls in a competitive market. Some property owners may live in a portion of the home and for security reasons they might not want to give out the address initially. But if there is an email, ask for their number so you can speak to them and ask them to provide some information that tells you they are the property owner. If they are the homeowner, they will give you the address for verification and schedule an appointment. Since some scammers will give an address, you have to be careful to ask for information to verify they are the homeowner. If they are the homeowner, they will understand your concerns and will be happy to provide the information you need.
Q: I’m out of town and can’t view the property. It’s a good price, and I don’t want to lose it. What should I do?
A: Always, always have someone view the home for you on your behalf. If you don’t know anyone in the area, ask a future co-worker or a future classmate to view the home for you. Offer to buy them lunch once you get into town. Scammers hope for this type of situation. Many of the original ads would say they were out of the country, they can’t show the property because they are doing missionary work or some charitable thing, but if you send certified funds, they promise to send the keys. This is an obvious giveaway and easy to rule out. These days, they might set up an appointment to seemingly show good faith, but they won’t show up and you won’t be able to reach them on the phone number they gave you. They hope by setting up the appointment and giving you an address, you will feel okay enough to send them some money. If a person can show you the property and can show proof of ownership and some additional verifying information then you are on the right track to confirming you are dealing with the homeowner.
In general, please always proceed with caution. If it sounds too good to be true, many times it is too good to be true. In a competitive market it is easy to find yourself rushing when affordable properties rent quickly. This is especially more difficult when you are on a strict budget and your move date is coming up soon.
It is always best to take time to ask important questions and ask for help if you feel unsure. If something is giving you a reason to pause, listen to your gut and take the necessary time to be 100 percent sure the home you are considering is truly a home you can rent.
Nancy Simmons Starrs is the founder and president of Apartment Detectives, a D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia apartment-search service.