Whether you’re looking for a place to live or a vacation rental, you should always be cautious and aware that rental listings could be fake. Scammers will use different methods to advertise properties that don’t exist or aren’t available to trick people into sending them money. For example, some scammers will hijack the emails of the real property owners or hijack real rental listings and modify the ads, while others create fake listings and lure people in with low rent and great amenities.
Consumer Protection Tips
The following tips will help reduce your risk of getting caught in a rental scam.
Never Pay Cash, Wire Money or Pay with Prepaid Cards
Wiring money is the same as sending cash. Once you give the number on the back of the prepaid card, the money is gone. Therefore, it’s best to pay by credit card so you can dispute the charge if needed.
Research the Property and Owner
Search public records to confirm the identity of the owner. If there’s an agent, verify that the person you’re working with actually works for the property owner. Check out the status of the property to make sure it’s clear of liens or foreclosure. Beware of multiple listings online for the same property that have different contact information.
Consider Using a Licensed Broker or Real Estate Agent
Having a licensed agent represent you will reduce your chances of getting scammed while searching for a rental.
Get It In Writing
Be sure to get everything in writing, including contracts, leases, receipts, etc. This will ensure you have a written agreement stating the rights and responsibilities of each party if a problem arises.
Look Out for Limited or No Photos
No matter which search engine you’re using for your rental search, be wary of listings that lack photos. This could indicate the property is in poor condition or it doesn’t exist.
Watch for Typos or Grammatical Errors
Misspellings or grammatical errors in a rental ad or emails could be a red flag that it’s a fraudulent listing.
Tour the Property
When renting locally, be sure to view the property inside and out. Drive around the area at different times of the day to learn more about the neighborhood. Talk with the neighbors or the current tenants to learn more about the property, the owners and neighborhood.
Be Wary of High Pressure or Hurried Sales
Be wary of any person who rushes you to sign a lease or hand over a substantial “deposit” on the spot. If it is a legitimate rental, the lease is legally binding once you sign. Unless otherwise stated in writing, your deposit may be non-refundable. If it is scam, you will have lost your money, be left without a rental property and could possibly become a victim of identity theft.
“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
Check out the average rental prices for the area. If a listing for the same size property with similar amenities is priced significantly lower, be cautious. A scammer could bait you with the lower price to get your money and personal information.
Contact Consumer Protection
If you’ve fallen victim to a rental scam, file a report with local law enforcement. To file a complaint or to check the complaint history of a business, Contact Pinellas County Consumer Protection at (727-464-6200) or visit www.pinellascounty.org/consumer.