Rental housing in San Diego County is a valuable commodity and is generally expensive. Now, malicious actors are taking advantage of the surge in demand by using popular payment apps and COVID-19 social distancing practices to defraud trusted consumers and avoid detection.
Rental scams have always been a problem for consumers and law enforcement. Fraudsters target hopeful tenants using fake or misappropriated property listings with attractive prices. In fake listings, scammers post photos of properties they have no connection to and then create a fake advertisement to entice tenants.
Hacked property listings involve targeting an actual rental listing and reposting it with the scammer’s email and phone number. When a potential tenant shows interest, scammers rely on high-pressure sales tactics to create a sense of urgency, demanding a deposit to keep the property. Once the scammer receives the money, he disappears.
In the past, it was easier to identify scams. The scammers needed wire transfers or cash, avoided face-to-face contact, and refused to allow tenants to view a property without first paying a deposit – all red flags that would have derailed the scam. But now these practices are normal, and bad actors are taking advantage of the perfect storm that relies on electronic communication, the ease of electronic transactions such as Venmo or PayPal, and avoiding face-to-face interactions.
Here’s how scammers work:
- They place ads on websites such as Craigslist and Zillow and social media apps, often listing properties below market value to attract unsuspecting renters.
- They are taking advantage of social distancing protocols by avoiding in-person meetings and demanding electronic communications and money transfers.
- When potential tenants request a viewing before paying, scammers use technology to provide fictitious virtual tours or conduct video tours of a hacked property listing.
As new ways of doing business change, it has become more difficult to identify rental scammers, but there are still telltale signs of fraud. Here are some tips to avoid rental scams:
- Beware of properties that are offered below market value. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
- Use caution with ads that have grammatical errors or major spelling mistakes. A legitimate rental listing should be professional.
- Verify the rental by checking known real estate websites to make sure the home exists, is located at the listed address, and is available for rent.
- Do an online search of the rental company to see if there are any bad reviews or scam warnings about it.
- Beware of high-pressure rental tactics that require you to make a deposit or payment quickly. Speed and urgency are the fraudster’s tools.
- Meet your landlord in person. Avoid a completely cybernetic transaction that could make it difficult to identify the other party.
- Never make a deposit or payment until you have seen the property and signed a lease.
- Make sure the landlord or agent has access to the rental unit. Visit the unit or have someone you trust visit the unit.
- Don’t settle for an outside visit.
- Never transfer money and never pay with cash, cryptocurrency or gift cards. Transferring money is the same as sending money and cannot be recovered.
If you have been the victim of a rental scam, report the incident to your local police department or request a real estate fraud complaint form from the San Diego District Attorney at [email protected]