According to the study, rental scams can take several forms, but perhaps most commonly, fraudsters simply copy the photo and description of a property, post it online with their own contact information and try to get a deposit and first month’s rent from the victim. The fraudster may communicate only by email or text message and may claim to be out of the country and unavailable to show the property. Once the victim sends money, the fraudster disappears.
In less common types of fraud, victims may be enticed to buy an online directory of homes supposedly for rent, or they may be tricked into signing up for credit monitoring that comes with recurring monthly charges.
“While an advertised rental that meets your needs at a great price might be tempting, it just may be a scam,” says Phil Catlett, President of the Better Business Bureau Serving Western Michigan. “Consumers shouldn’t rush into paying upfront fees for renting housing sight-unseen. Instead, take time to verify the details of listings.”
BBB Scam Tracker has received more than 1,300 reports of rental fraud from 2016 to 2019, while the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) reports more than $37 million from January 1, 2019, through October 20, 2019, in losses associated with complaints that mention the word “rent.”
Many consumers look for rental listings on free classified listing sites like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. They also check websites such as Apartments.com, Zillow, Trulia, Realtor.com and Homes.com. Fake listings turn up frequently on these sites, despite the companies’ efforts to keep scam listings off their sites and warn consumers about potential fraud.
“I was going through Facebook rentals and one advertise for $900 in a decent area. I inquired and they walked me through the steps to schedule a viewing,” says one complaint from Wyoming, Michigan. “The landlord claimed to be deployed overseas, and wanted me to send him the deposit.” After speaking with a neighbor this woman learned the person she was communicating with wasn't the homeowner, and the home was really for rent for a much higher price.
Marcia Beer of the Lansing area tells the BBB, “This person wanted to rent my vacation home through VRBO/HomeAway but could not use a credit card because it was a business trip. He stated that his work would send a check for the rental amount. When I received the check it was in excess of the rental amount and I received a call stating his work made a mistake and I needed to forward the balance to his "travel Planner". I cashed the check and sent a cashiers check to his travel planner. I just received notice that the company check was a fraud and that the business had experienced several of these events. Looking back, I should have seen the red flags but I didn't.”
Scams also frequently appear on vacation rental websites such as Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway.com. They follow the same pattern, preying on vacationers’ inability to check out a listing before paying money for it. Cases also have been noted of scammers luring a renter away from Airbnb to deal with the “landlord” directly or spoofing Airbnb’s site to impersonate the landlord and the company’s payment portal. These companies likewise have warned consumers about potential fraud and taken steps against fake listings.
Rental fraud often is committed by Nigerian criminal gangs that participate in other types of fraud. Law enforcement efforts have targeted perpetrators of a variety of rental fraud. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) took action against a company that fraudulently sold credit monitoring that allegedly was required before a consumer could tour a rental property, while another company selling a fake directory of “pre-foreclosure” homes was successfully prosecuted in federal court.
In addition to warning consumers of red flags that may signal apartment or vacation rental scams, the report recommends:
• Rental unit owners should watermark photos used for rental postings, which will make it more difficult for scammers to copy photos of other properties posted online.
• Website platforms that list houses, apartments and vacation properties should make extra effort to screen for bogus listings, and they should explore ways to allow consumers to easily report scam listings.
• Police should encourage victims to report not only to the rental platform, but also to the FTC, BBB or IC3.
What to do if you are the victim of a rental scam:
File a report with local police.
Go to BBB.org
to view a business’ BBB Business Profile, including complaints and reviews, or to file a complaint or report a scam on Scam Tracker.
Contact the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov/complaint
or by calling 877-FTC-HELP.
File a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center.