CHARLESTON — West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is urging citizens to use caution and do their research before entering into a residential rental agreement.
Morrisey's office has received calls and answered questions from consumers recently regarding scammers who post fake rental ads and property listings online. Often the “landlord” will say he or she lives out of town and cannot meet the potential tenant in person to show the property.
However, the “landlord” will provide details about the home or apartment and ask the tenant to pay a large deposit upfront before sending the lease agreement and key.
“Consumers should be very cautious when looking for a place to rent online and make sure the person they are communicating with actually owns the home,” Morrisey said. “Some people will look at residential real estate sites, find homes that appear to be vacant and for sale, and then use that information to make up fake rental ads.”
The scam is not limited to West Virginia, however. The Internet Crime Complaint Center, a project supported by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, recently posted a warning about scammers who advertise fake property listings online. According to the Center, criminals hope to steal funds directly through fraudulently collected security deposits and rent, or they wish to steal identities with information gathered from applications.
“In the digital age, there are some things to consider when it comes to the fine details of renting,” Morrisey said. “Online classifieds have created the perfect scenario for rental scams, easily targeting certain people, including college students who are renting for the first time or senior citizens who are downsizing. We urge people to not send money via checks, money orders, or prepaid debit cards to anyone unless they first confirm the person on the other end of the email is really who he says he is.”
College students may be especially vulnerable to this scam. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 2009-2011, 25.1 percent of enrolled students over that period (about 5.8 million young adults) lived off-campus in non-family households.
While there are some obvious things to consider before choosing a place to live, such as budget limitations, location, roommate needs, property type, and preferred lease terms, there are also potential warning signs of fraudulent property listings to consider once you’ve started looking:
- The price seems too good to be true; doesn’t fit with market rates for similar, surrounding properties.
- High upfront costs, such as security deposits and other fees.
- Excuses for why a rental unit can’t be shown to prospective tenants, such as “The owner is traveling” or “The landlord is sick.”
- Requests for payment before you see the apartment.
- No professional online presence or leasing office location.
- Listings with multiple grammatical mistakes or stilted/broken English.
- Images of the rental unit are only generic interior shots and descriptions are not city-specific.
Morrisey said consumers can take a few steps to protect themselves against rental scammers, including:
- Research the leasing office, property manager, or landlord in advance.
- Read tenant reviews and historical information about the property.
- Never submit payments or sign a contract without seeing a property.
- Leave a payment paper trail with checks, strictly avoiding cash or wire transfer payments.
- Inquire with the landlord/ manager about the property to see how well they answer basic questions.
- Double check to make sure the property is actually owned by the alleged property manager or landlord’s organization.
- Double check the address online to make sure the property exists, isn’t being advertised for rent or sale by someone else, and that the description provided matches what appears on an online map.