Hide and Seek: Find the apartment and the “scam”

Looking for a new house or apartment can be stressful enough. There are so many details to consider such as, “Can I afford it?” “Is it close enough to work?” “What about school districts, shopping, dining, entertainment?” and many other questions to ask, but who would think of asking if the owner is really the owner.

This week my sister was apartment hunting.  Finding one she was interested in on Craigslist she emailed the “poster” and requested an opportunity to view the home.  A reply message came to her via email, claiming to be the owner of the home and out of the country at this time but that she could still go by and see the house.  Being a smart, savvy woman, she of course sent her husband instead of going alone.  When he arrives at the house he finds the true owners, who have no intention of renting their home.  Once upon a time they had it for sale, but are not renting it out or even selling it anymore.  Thanks to this Craigslist posting he has had people from 150 miles away show up on his door step expecting the opportunity to view the home to rent, only to find out that it’s not available. It’s just a time wasting scam.

While this hoax is annoying and a waste of time for both home owners, apartment hunters and even the police departments who are investigating these types of scams there are some that are much worse.

How do scams regarding rental properties occur?

There are several different ways.  In some cases a bona fide listing of a home for sale or rental will be “hijacked” or “borrowed.”  Thieves will take over the listing and attempt to gather either information from potential renters, fees or deposits. They may alter the name of the person who originally placed the ad or change the ad to their name and contact information.  They also may lure you in with promises of low rent or paid utilities.

How can you tell if your game of hide and seek of rental properties is legitimate?

Most states offer online services so that you can check the name of the owner of a property.  After checking, ask for identification when you meet with them.

Avoid rental properties that ask for wire transfers, deposits or any other upfront fees prior to signing the lease (and often even prior to viewing the property.)

If you can’t look at the property yourself, as many people are moving from out of state or city, find someone you can trust to view the property for you as well as to check out the details regarding ownership.

If the “owner” says that they are out of the country beware.  Thieves may take advantage of even a family that is away on vacation for week.  Sure in some cases an owner may have an agent acting on their behalf, but check the details before you sign that check.

Last but not least, you may be asked for information regarding your credit card or your credit history.  Be very careful of who you provide that information to, because once you do turn it over you may need more than a place to live, you may be a victim of identity theft.

But what about the keys you ask?  Thieves may drill holes in locks to enter and then change them to fit new locks and new keys. They turn the keys over to you and homeowners return from vacation to find someone living in their home. Or tenants return to move in and find that their deposit is gone and the home is already occupied.

Using services like Craigslist or bulletin board services can be helpful, but it definitely a case of buyer beware when searching for your next house or apartment using these types of services.

If you have been a victim of a rental scam report it to local law enforcement and the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov/complaint. To file a complaint or to get free information on consumer issues; visit ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. You should also contact the Web site where the ad was posted and file a complaint there.  You may also want to put credit freezes on your credit cards and contact the credit reporting agencies.

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