By Alan Pentico
Photo: Creative Commons image from Zachary’s Blog
March 9, 2016 (San Diego) -- Now that so much of the rental industry has moved online, it’s easier than ever for scammers to take advantage of unsuspecting renters.
These scams come in a variety of flavors, but when it comes to rental listings, they’re usually trying to obtain your personal financial information, such as your social security number or bank account numbers. Never submit this information to anyone over the internet. While credit and background checks are indeed a common tool landlords use, you should only submit sensitive financial information to a landlord or property manager you’ve met in person.
Even when you have met a landlord or leasing agent in person, it doesn’t hurt to verify their identity before handing over sensitive financial information. Ask for their full name, office address and business phone number. Cross-check this information by searching online. You can also ask a landlord for references.
There are also variations of the old “Nigerian prince” scheme. A post on Craigslist says someone is looking for a roommate. When contacted, they may give good answers to your questions and seem like a good fit as a roommate. But then they say they’re out of town and ask you to deposit a check or money order on their behalf. The reason they need you to do this is often murky. The check or money order they send may look completely legitimate, and if you take it to a bank, you may even be able to cash it. It can take a bank several days to detect fake checks, and you’d be on the hook to pay back any amount cashed from a fake check.
Another scam that popped up recently involves vacant homes that may be for sale. The scammer will post photos of the home, the complete address and other verifiable details in their listing. They may even meet you in front of the property but will offer some excuse as to why they can’t let you inside to see the place. The catch here is that the scammer doesn’t actually own the home or have any connection to it. They may ask you for a deposit, but we never recommend handing over a deposit prior to seeing the home or apartment you’re renting, including the interior.
One way to avoid scams is to start your rental search on a professional listing service such as Apartments.com, ForRent.com, REALTOR.com Rentals, RentPath.com, OnRadPad.com or Zillow.com. You can also check the websites of local property management companies for current listings. Craigslist has plenty of legitimate listings too — just be cautious and insist on meeting in person before providing cash or other financial details.
At the end of the day, the old cliché is still some of the best advice: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. With a limited supply and high demand, a market like San Diego is fertile territory for unscrupulous players. Do your research and verify everything to avoid becoming the next victim.
- Alan Pentico is executive director of the San Diego County Apartment Association.