Nancy Simmons Starrs is founder and president of Apartment Detectives, a D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia apartment search service. 

I’ve encountered lots of apartment hunters who in an online search find an ad for a perfect apartment in a great location at an ideal price. It’s a shame that apartment rental scams have become so prevalent that many come to me to determine whether the ads are legitimate.

When I first started seeing an increase in these types of ads, they were a little more obvious and easy to identify. It was clear that market research had not been done to mimic prices in the Washington area. The ads typically did not include pictures or a property address.

Unfortunately, the ads have gotten more creative. Pictures of properties in the area are frequently included, and often a property address is provided. The prices are still lower than market prices in the D.C. area, but they are getting closer to current market prices.

It breaks my heart when I get a phone call from a person who has sent a cashier’s check to one of these people, who have suddenly become unreachable after receipt of funds. So I thought I would provide a few tips and things to look for to help avoid falling for these scams:

• If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This can be said for many things, but it is typically the case with these ads. Check to see if the price and square footage seem realistic for the location. Compare the property with other similar options in the area.

Even if the price is close to current market prices, try to determine whether the property is newer, if more amenities are offered, if the property is more renovated than you might expect compared with other similar properties in the same location. If the alleged rental is far superior to comparable properties, then you may need to search for further proof that it is real.

• Ask for the property address and unit number where applicable. Compare it with other rentals in the same building or homes in the same location. If the property is in an apartment rental building, this will be easier to find a leasing office you can call. If it is a condominium, co-op or private home, search to see if the property address is listed elsewhere for sale or for rent.

Check with the contact person or real estate professional. Many of these ads have taken information from a home that is listed for sale or for rent.

• Ask for the landlord’s name if the property is privately owned. Search the name and property address in the public tax record to see if the name matches up. If the landlord has recently purchased the home and the public record has not been updated, ask for proof of the home purchase.

• Always view the home or have a person whom you trust view it in person. If the contact person schedules an appointment, don’t take that as confirmation that all is well. Make sure someone views the home.

• Do not send money or personal information with a promise of keys being sent by mail without at least going through these few steps to confirm that the subject property is available for rent and does exist. Many of these ads, once you email the contact person will send you a reply  saying things like: “I am currently working out of the country. I cannot show you the apartment, but I promise I will mail you the keys.”

Some even say they are out of the country doing charitable work. Some will also ask for your name, address and Social Security number. They will also request that you send cashiers checks or money orders for one or two months rent so they can send you the keys to the home.

This is an expensive rental market, which is not to say that there are not some better prices available in the area. It is just a good idea to take the extra time to verify that the property is available for rent and that you or someone you trust is able to see the property.

Taking these extra steps will be well worth the effort to be sure all is well. You want to be certain everything is in order before moving forward on an application and submitting security deposits to ensure that you will have a legitimate lease and keys in hand on moving day.

Catch up with some of Nancy’s previous columns: