Military Renter Beware: Tips to Avoid Online Rental Scams
BEAUTIFUL, brand new, five-bedroom home, in-ground pool, located in the BEST school district, with utilities included for hundreds of dollars under BAH (and every comparable listing).
Sound like an intriguing rental listing? Sure does.
Too good to be true? Most certainly.
Online rental scams are nothing new, but they are evolving just as fast as technology itself. Sadly, there is a thriving industry devoted to preying on the fact that most military families are on a tight timeline, strict budget, and typically make decisions from afar. In areas with competitive rental markets, a military applicant may have no other choice but to rent sight-unseen to secure a home before they PCS.
Enter the scammers.
Let’s review some of the most common online rental scams – so common that they have kitschy, casino-heist sounding names – and then go over how to spot and avoid them. Luckily, with some common sense and innovative services, you can save yourself some strife (and hundreds, even thousands, of dollars).
In this con, a listing for a home on a reputable site is duplicated and doctored, with the owner or property manager’s contact info swapped out for the scammer’s. You’ll typically see these ads on sites like Craigslist. The listing does in fact exist, and could even have a sign out front or be vacant.
When would-be renters reach out, the contact makes every excuse to evade a property showing. Rather, they pressure prospective tenants into sending a deposit via wire transfer to “hold” the listing. When military families are renting sight-unseen, this can work to the full advantage of the scammer! They don’t even have to worry about coming up with a reason why they can’t look inside.
This scam takes a little more creativity than the Hijack, but still works under the same basic premise. Scammers create a totally fake listing with a hodgepodge of photos from the Internet. Or sometimes, the home is real but is not currently on the market. Often, this is where super cheap price tags in desirable neighborhoods come into play. The scammer can pressure their victims with scarcity or ‘fear of missing out’ and cause otherwise rational consumers to rush into action.
The Credit Check Scam
This is where things get a little more interesting. Everyone knows a landlord has the right to consider the credit scores of potential applicants. Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission disrupted a 6.8 million-dollar scam that exploited this commonplace requirement. Prospective tenants were lured in by phony rental listings (or hijacked listings) and then the scammer directed the applicant to another website to order a credit report.
So far, the process all seems on the up-and-up, but it gets shady fast. First of all, the credit check should never come BEFORE being able to see the home. While purchasing the credit report, the applicant unknowingly "enrolls" in a recurring credit monitoring program. You know the scam - practically imperceptible and already selected opt-out check boxes enroll you for a $30 monthly recurring fee that they hope you just never notice on your statement. The property manager or landlord then hastily falls off the face of the earth, the home tours never happen, and you’re left paying for lost time and a phony service (that you may or may not be aware of paying).
How to Avoid Being Duped
Because of the unique housing situations we as military families find ourselves facing, these scams hit especially hard for us. There are several glaring, bright-red flags to be on the lookout for when searching through online rental listings. Luckily, we’re a clever bunch! Using common sense and being aware can help mitigate the risk of being scammed.
- Approach Craigslist with extreme caution. Scammers of all shapes and sizes flock to Craigslist and similar sites because of the lack of regulation and ultimate anonymity. Stick with reputable sites like MilitarybyOwner, Zillow, Trulia, and local (verified) rental management companies.
- Never, EVER wire money for a security deposit, first month’s rent, or application fee. It’s 2017, you guys. No one does that anymore.
- Don’t give anyone your banking information or personal information without seeing the house or having someone you trust scope it out first. Nothing is so urgent that you throw all caution to the wind! If you can’t spring for a “recon” trip to scope out properties, you can hire a MILLIE Scout to stand in for you and review the property.
- Do NOT pay a deposit without first seeing the property (if you can) and/or signing a lease. It is crucial to confirm that the property a) exists and b) the person you’re dealing with has the authority to rent it! If the landlord is MIA, be wary. Out of the country on a mission trip, sick, caring for an elderly family member, or even overseas with the military are common excuses for not being able to show you a property. Insist on seeing the property, whether by FaceTime walk-through or with a MILLIE Scout if you can’t be there in person.
- Do some sleuthing on the property and the property manager or landlord. Look up the property management company (if they claim one) on Facebook and sites like the Better Business Bureau. Scroll through reviews.
- Google the property address, and do a Google image search of the featured image. You may discover that the home you’re interested in does in fact exist, but in another state! Also, if the photo has a watermark, see what it says! Does it match the listing contact?
- Wordy listings and emails with cringeworthy grammar are always a reason for pause. Think “I’m a far-away prince stranded in Canada and need you to send money” style wording.
While renting sight unseen is never ideal, it doesn’t have to be something wrought with fear. With a little technological savvy, trusted sources, and a little help on the ground, you can rent with confidence.