4 Steps to Avoid Rental Scams
Something I see all the time (but especially in the first couple weeks of the new year) is scammers posing as landlords online and scamming would-be renters out of their money.
Scammers know no bounds, I’ve noticed. It doesn't matter if you're somebody that's local to Chattanooga or you're out of state and trying to rent sight unseen. It's easy to fall victim to one of these scammers because their methods are hard to spot, especially if you don’t know what to look for.
Here’s a rental scammer’s basic M.O.: First, they’ll snatch information that's already posted somewhere else online for a real rental property. They'll look at listing sites like Trulia, Zillow or realtor.com, then they'll take that information and repost it somewhere else like Craigslist or Facebook. When they repost it for their purposes, though, they'll usually drop the price pretty significantly, and they'll change the contact information to be their own.
Then you go online to search for a new place, and you see this AMAZING house. It's a smokin’ hot deal. So you contact that person and tell them you’re interested. Odds are, if they are a scammer, the person will have a story that goes something like
“Oh, I'm out of town on a work trip right now, so I can't show you the property in person…”
“I work on my uncle's fishing boat and we're going to be out to sea for the next three weeks, here's how you need to go about doing this…”
The exact story may change, but they’ll pretty much always have some kind of an excuse for why they can't meet you in person. Instead, they’ll give you directions on how you can go see the house on your own. A lot of times, they're just going to ask you to drive by the property, or they're going to ask you to peek in the windows.
Important Side Note: Please do not go peeping around in windows of houses that are listed. For one, you have no idea if they're vacant or occupied. Also, it’s just not smart to look around in windows. That's how you're going to get yourself into some trouble. So please don't do that.
When you decide that you like the place and want to fill out an application and put down a deposit (and why wouldn’t you? It looks like a great deal from where you’re standing), they're going to ask you to send them money through one of the digital platforms like PayPal, Square, Cash App, Venmo, or Zelle. You’ll think that you've secured a new place, you'll send them a deposit, and then you'll never hear from this person again. You’ll be out the money for the deposit, and you’ll still not have a place to rent.
As a property manager, I hear these stories all too often, so I’m going to give you 4 quick steps on how to avoid being scammed when you’re looking for a place to rent.
1. Verify the property management company
Look them up.
Do they have a website? Do they have a Facebook page?
Is the property listed on their site?
If they have a phone number, give them a call. Sometimes, as a busy property manager, we're not always able to answer our phone (my phone is usually ringing off the hook) but you should be able to get a voicemail or be able to leave a message and have someone call you back.
If you want to go even one step further, mention the name of the property management company on Facebook and see if you can get some people to verify if they've ever worked with them before or if they live in one of their properties.
If it's an individual landlord, the easiest thing that you can do is pull up the property tax assessor's website. It's public information. Literally, you can just Google your local property tax assessor (in Chattanooga the website is http://assessor.hamiltontn.gov/), type in the address of the property and see who owns the property. If it's a person, check and see if it's the name of the person that you've been dealing with. If their name doesn't match the property tax assessor's website, there’s the first big red flag.
2. Don’t send security deposits over digital cash platforms
Anyone who's collecting a security deposit from you should be able to collect it in person, or through some sort of a tenant platform. At our company, we use a platform called Appfolio. All of our tenants sign up to use Appfolio, and all of our owners sign up to use Appfolio. Tenants log in to what we call the “tenant portal” and then are able to make free payments using a routing number and account number through the secure app. Other reputable services include Cozy and Buildium. And then of course, meeting people in person is often a safe choice. Whatever you do, avoid sending deposits over cash services like Venmo, Square, Cash App, PayPal or Zelle.
3. Never pay a dime sight unseen
That is a really, really easy way to get scammed. Even if you're trying to rent a property from, say, Florida, and you don't have time to come up and tour, ask the manager of the property (or the landlord, if it's an individual owner) to FaceTime you. They should be able to give you their contact information, introduce themselves via FaceTime and physically walk you through the interior and exterior of the property. If they can't do that, then you should be able to at least get a video from them. Any credible person offering a rental should be able to provide you with at least some sort of documentation about the home. If somebody can't meet you in person or can't provide you a FaceTime video, and insists on conducting everything virtually, I would be really, really worried about that. And I would consider that to be a red flag. So, always ask for some sort of video documentation. That will really protect you!
4. When in doubt, ask a property manager!
I have no problem trying to vet out something to see if it's a scam for you or not. I don't care if you live in one of my properties, I don't care if I know you, I don't care if I work with you. I really don't want people to get taken advantage of, so if you have done all the steps that I've told you, and you're still a little bit iffy about whether something is legit or not, send me an email at Ashley@whitewaterpm.com. You can also send me a message on Facebook (facebook.com/whitewaterpm), or you can send an inquiry through our website (www.whitewaterpm.com). I promise you; we will take the next step for you to check and see if we think something is verified. That might mean getting in contact with the owner, or that might mean driving by the property ourselves to check it out. Just digging a little bit deeper. I don't mind doing that for you at all. Be careful about the properties that you're hunting down. Do your due diligence. Please do not fall victim to a scam. It's easy to avoid, but it can be tricky. And your property manager is an asset to your living experience. We're on your team to give you a home that you can enjoy. Look for somebody who's got your best interest in mind and try and rent from one of them.
Keeping these 4 things on your mind when you’re looking for a place to rent should help you be able to avoid a lot of the most popular scams out there right now. If you have any questions or comments, message them on this posting, and I will create a follow up post to respond to any of them, or I'll send you a personal message.
Happy house hunting, and a happy 2021!