Scammers are everywhere, and the rental properties market is no exception.
From February 2015 through May 2021, the Better Business Bureau received around 1,900 reports of rental scams, according to an Apartment Guide analysis. Of course, not everyone reports rental scams to the Better Business Bureau, so the actual number of scams during that period likely was higher.
Before you sign a lease for a new place to live and hand over your money, watch out for these nine red flags for rental scams.
1. You're Looking at an Online Ad That's Unprofessional
A sloppy ad with questionable grammar or spelling could be the work of a scammer. Put your trust in online listings that don't contain suspicious wording.
Carefully read every rental listing you come across online. Keep an eye out for spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, odd wording and overuse of capital letters. In addition, if you're in the U.S., be on the lookout for foreign spellings of words, such as "favour" rather than "favor."
2. You're Reading an Online Ad With No Photos
Although a rental ad without photos is not necessarily a scam, it should at least raise an eyebrow. After all, anyone with a smartphone can snap decent photos of a rental unit.
When you come across an ad that lacks photos, contact the landlord or leasing agent and ask whether they can post some pictures. Beware any photos that are emailed to you and must be downloaded. These files might contain viruses or other sneaky software designed to steal your personal information.
3. You Notice MLS Watermarks on Photos
As you're reviewing a list for a rental property, look for Multiple Listing Service (MLS) watermarks on photos. These watermarks could signal that a scammer has duplicated a legitimate ad, complete with legitimate photos provided by a local MLS. Real estate agents use these photos in MLS listings of homes for sale.
If you come across photos with MLS watermarks in an ad for a rental unit, do a reverse image search to hunt for identical pictures. Or plug the address into a search engine to see whether the property pops up in for-sale ads. If you discover discrepancies, consider moving on to other rental ads.
4. You're Shocked by How Low the Rent Is
When the monthly rent advertised online for an apartment, a house or another property is surprisingly low, someone might be trying to lure you into a scam.
Scammers sometimes list incredibly low rents to attract lots of potential renters and then trick them into paying money for a phony apartment. Make sure you compare a rock-bottom rent that's being advertised with the rents for similar properties nearby. If there's a big gap in prices, the place with the extremely low rent could be a sham.
5. You're Being Asked to Wire Money
When you're asked to send money via a wire transfer to rent a place to live, it's "the surest sign of a scam," the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says. The FTC warns that you should never wire money for a security deposit, an application fee or the first month's rent. Keep in mind that once you send money through a wire transfer, you can't get it back.
6. You Can't Visit the Rental Unit
If you're not being allowed to visit and tour a rental unit but you're being asked to send a security deposit or the first month's rent, it's likely that someone is trying to rip you off. In fact, the rental unit might not even exist.
Before signing a lease or turning over any money, you should visit the rental unit or have a trusted person visit on your behalf.
7. You're Told the Landlord Is out of the Country
Let's say you're interested in a place to rent, but the landlord informs you they're overseas. They say they've arranged to have someone else, perhaps a "leasing agent," work with you. Unfortunately, the person posing as the agent might let you look at the place (and not require you to sign a lease) but hand you fake keys after you've sent money to the out-of-the-country landlord.
Unless you can meet a landlord or leasing agent in person, tour the rental unit and sign a lease before paying money, look elsewhere for a place to live.
8. You're Being Pressured to Make a Decision
There's no reason to rush into deciding whether to rent a property. But some scammers turn up the pressure so you don't have enough time to properly consider whether to put money down for a rental unit. In this scam, the crook hopes you'll pay the money before you can meet the landlord or leasing agent or can tour the rental unit.
Remember that a legitimate landlord or leasing agent will give you sufficient time to figure out whether you want to rent a unit.
9. You Spot a "For Sale" Sign
A scammer sometimes will present a vacant or foreclosed home as being for rent when, according to a sign outdoors, it's really for sale. If you see a "for sale" sign at the property either online or when you pay a visit, call the phone number on the sign and start asking questions. Chances are that this property is actually for sale and not for rent. In other words, a fake landlord or leasing agent could be trying to dupe you.
Getting Your Credit Rental-Ready
When you're looking for a place to rent, be sure to check your free Experian credit report and credit score. You may find items on the report that could make it tougher to pass a landlord's credit check, such as a late payment reported by your lender that you know you made on time. Or, if your score is lower than you might like, you may be able to take quick action to give it some help, such as paying off a credit card balance or signing up for Experian Boost®ø, which gives you credit for on-time monthly payments on cellphone, utility and streaming service bills. Taking time to check your report and improve your score before signing a lease could help you qualify for the property or reduce the security deposit you'll pay.