If you’re looking to move to the Washington area and find on an online site what looks like an unbelievable deal on a short-term furnished apartment, beware: It could be a scam.
As is typically the case at the beginning of a new administration under a new president, thousands of people in government will be relocating to the Washington region. Out-of-towners are prime targets of scammers because they’re unfamiliar with the rental stock and prices here and are not around to see the properties in person.
I’ve had a number of clients who have suspected that something was fishy before moving forward with a rental deal as well as others who, unfortunately, lost money to the scams.
Short-term furnished apartments come at a high price in the Washington area. They are a very convenient solution for people who are on a temporary assignment, a short-term contract or new to the area who are trying to get an idea of where they want to live before committing to a longer-term lease.
These apartments typically come fully furnished with pots, pans and linens, making it easy for a tenant to move in with just a suitcase.
These days, scammers have become much more creative and brazen than when these type of false ads started to appear. Don’t send money to someone if you are not absolutely 100 percent certain and have proof that the property does exist and is available for rent.
Here are some red flags and tips to help you avoid falling into their trap:
• Most scam ads will provide pictures and details about the property. Many times, the pictures and details are taken from another ad of a for-sale or for-rent listing, with the price changed. I had a four-bedroom home listed for rent that I got an email about. I was told there was another ad with the same pictures and details, with a different price and contact information. Some scam ads will take pictures from one property and put it together with different details.
That scammer was more obvious, offering the home for half the price, so that was easier for this person to realize that was not the true contact. The prices of rental homes are typically lower than market prices for the area. Some scammers are seemingly doing some market research, so their prices are just a little bit lower than market price.
• Some scam ads will not provide the property address. A true homeowner or real estate professional will provide the address.
• More-obvious scams will email you back to tell you they cannot show you the property because they are not in the area, but they promise to send the keys. Some ads or the contact person for that ad will say they just want to get the apartment rented quickly so they are offering a lower price and won’t be showing the apartment. Some scammers are offering to show the property, and some will even schedule an appointment, but they won’t show up for the appointment.
• Many scammers are offering phone numbers and, to a certain point, will email you back responding to questions about a property. Some will answer your call and answer some of your questions about the property. Many will answer questions to a certain point, but typically, you will stop getting answers if you ask more questions.
Many scammers will say they are the owner or the property manager or a Realtor. Some will provide the name of a property management company that might even have a website and a contact number.
So, if you don’t have knowledge of the area, ask a lot of questions. The more questions you ask, you may find the contact person will stop emailing you back, the ad will be pulled and the phone number will suddenly not work. Some of these scammers are more persistent and will do whatever it takes to get your money, so you really have to be careful. The best thing to do is to ask a real estate professional or a person who knows the area if they think the apartment exists or if it looks fishy. Ask them if they have ever heard of the management company.
• If you cannot be in the area before your move, ask a friend or co-worker to look at the home on your behalf. At the very least, make sure that the management company you are considering is a trusted and reliable source. Know that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. A true homeowner or property manager will answer your questions and be able to provide proof that they own the home or proof of who owns the home and that it is available to be rented.
The goal of these scams is to get you to the point where you will be willing to send money orders or give account numbers to the scammer to secure the advertised property. Once they receive the money or account information, they will suddenly become very unreachable. The scammer will not respond to email, the ad will be gone and the phone number disconnected. It seems to be a game of numbers: Getting one month’s rent, even one time out of 100, adds up.
• If you don’t have a friend who can tour the apartment, verify the information in the ad on your own. Independently, through an online search or directory assistance, find the phone number of the Realtor or property management firm and verify that it is listing the apartment at the price in the ad.
• If you have been scammed, report it to D.C. police’s Financial and Cyber Crimes Unit.
Nancy Simmons Starrs is founder and president of Apartment Detectives, a D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia apartment-search service.