Rental scams: Everything you need to know

HomeRental scams: Everything you need to know

By

Hannah Geremia

Apr 12, 2024

6 min read

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There’s nothing like almost falling for a rental scam to put a damper on moving out of home for the first time. 
After a few minutes of browsing Flatmates.com.au, I found a listing for a furnished, affordable, apartment in the heart of Wollongong. Exactly what I was looking for! I responded to the listing with zeal. The head tenant who wrote back was also a uni student, enrolled in the same degree as I was. We hit it off like old friends. Naively, we both agreed I’d move in and set a date. I was stoked to be sharing a place with her! 
Not long after, she hit me with, “I know you’re not moving in until next month, but can you pay your bond and 6 months’ rent now so I can make sure no one else takes your room?” I NEARLY SPAT OUT MY COFFEE. 6 MONTHS? Like any annoyed 17-year-old, I called my mum. As a sales assistant on minimum wage, I didn’t have 6 months’ rent plus bond. Surely enough, she assured me it was a scam. 
This occurred in 2016. Rental scams have been circulating for years—and it happens everywhere from Australia to the US. But as the rental market becomes more competitive and the cost of living gets higher, affordable rentals become few and far between. To avoid falling for the tactics of scammers, it’s important to know what to look for and how to protect yourself.
Image: KentWeakley, iStock

Types of scams

Error 404: The property you’re looking for does not exist
These scams advertise a rental below the market rate. Sometimes it’s luxurious and modern, while other times it’s nothing special. Hey, a good deal’s a good deal. Sounds attractive, right? We hate to burst your bubble, but the reason it’s so attractive is that it doesn’t exist. Not in your town or budget, at least. A quick reverse image search will reveal the photos used to entice you were stolen from a property on a different site. Not the one you were inquiring about.
In some cases, the property in question isn’t even available for rent. Several members of the r/AskAnAustralian subreddit said their property had been used in a rental scam. Hopeful renters graced their doorsteps, but all they could do was tell them they’d been scammed. We’ve seen the same stories in the US.
The scammer poses as the landlord or head tenant and takes to advertising the fake property on social media. They frequent platforms like Facebook Marketplace, Kakao, and WeChat. They’ll also try their luck on real estate or house share websites, like Flatmates.com.au, Rent.com, and Apartments.com.
Before you’ve even inspected the property they’ll ask for money. Usually under the guise of “reserving the property,” they’ll request a deposit, bond, or an obscene six months rent.

Deceptive and misleading ads
Picture this: You come across a listing advertising an opulent free-standing bath, loads of storage space, and a walk-in closet in the master bedroom. Talk about love at first listing. At the viewing, however, you discover there is no walk-in closet. The storage space is much smaller than what you were led to believe, and the bath is straight-up ugly. 
To no one’s surprise, scammers falsely advertise properties. Upon inspection, your rental won’t include features or amenities you thought were included. While some sketchy agents won’t go this far, others have taken to digitally manipulating images using AI.

Signs of a rental scam

You feel rushed
One thing all scammers have in common is their pressure tactics. They rely on frightening or rushing you into making a transaction or signing a lease. They’ll typically lead with how sought-after the property is, “It’s in a coveted location, you’ll never encounter a price this low again”. To top it off, they’ll do all they can in their power to demand a deposit. “I have several buyers waiting to put down a deposit, you need to pay now if you want me to secure the property.”

You’re asked to pay using an alternative method
Your landlord won’t ask you to pay a deposit or bond using cryptocurrency, gift cards, or cash. This rule goes for all government officials, organisations, and businesses. These payment methods are difficult to trace, so if they’re lost to a scammer, they can be difficult to get back.

You’re asked for ID
Your internet supplier doesn’t need your birth certificate, and your phone provider won’t ask for the password to your account in a text message. Exercise caution around property managers or head tenants who ask for personal information or physical copies of your ID. Real estate agents will never need copies of your passport, visa, or immigration documents. 

You found the property in a community group
The best way to avoid rental scams is by going through an agency or a trustworthy site. Avoid searching for properties on your local neighborhood’s Facebook group or public marketplaces like Craigslist. 

The price seems too good to be true
While we’d love to believe that you can rent a two-bedroom apartment in the heart of Sydney for $300 a week, it’s simply not possible. It’s important to know the median price of the area you’re searching in. If the property is going for less than half the market rate, there’s a good chance it’s a scam. 

The listing seems incomplete
A listing with no photos or a property address is a huge red flag. While it could be a scammer, it could also be indicative of a lazy property manager or head tenant who couldn’t be bothered to finish writing the listing. Neither of which you want to get involved with. Consider these listings write-offs.

You can’t inspect the property
Scammers protecting their fake property will refuse to let you see it, and make excuse after excuse as to why you can’t. Some common excuses include, ‘I’m visiting family overseas’, ‘I’m in the hospital’, and ‘I can’t access it because the tenants are currently living there’. You should always inspect a property before putting down a deposit or bond.

How to keep yourself safe

Do your research
It’s important that you, as a tenant, brush up on what your legal rights are before signing the lease. While these rights may vary from state to state, you can expect to pay a bond/deposit, which is typically four weeks’ rent at most, as well as about a month’s rent in advance. 
It’s a legal requirement that real estate agents are honest in their dealings. If you suspect your agent is providing you with incorrect or incomplete information regarding your property’s features, history, or location, contact the tenant’s rights body in your state. 

Report rental listing scamsIf you come across a potential rental scam, report it to local law enforcement and report it on the website or app where you found the listing. You should also report it to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC): Report to the FTC: ReportFraud.ftc.govReport to your state attorney generalDoing your research also means ensuring the property is actually owned by the real estate agent or property manager you’re liaising with. Scammers without a physical rental might hijack a listing and change the phone number and email address. If you see the same property for rent on multiple different sites, copy and paste its description into Google. Scammers often reuse descriptions—if the results show the same description for a different property, the property could be a scam. 
Assess the details in the description, too. A different address or contact details for multiple different agents can indicate the listing is being reused by multiple scammers.

Don’t disclose personal information
It’s important to protect yourself against phishing and identity theft attempts. Do not provide any personal details or send money to a potential landlord or property manager before you’ve inspected the property.

Inspect properties in person
It’s imperative that you, or someone you know inspect the property in person. While not many renters can afford to be picky, it pays (especially in the long run) to choose your property carefully. Viewing the property in person can assure you it’s as advertised and a good fit for your lifestyle. It can also allow you to ask the property manager or real estate agent any questions you might have about the property. 

Final word
The internet is full of scams and rental ads are no exception. Don’t willingly hand over personal information or cash to strangers, even if they could be a property manager for the listing you’re interested in. Do your due diligence and research the listing to ensure its legit. If there are any red flags or something feels off, ditch the listing altogether. 

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Written by

Hannah Geremia

Hannah has had over six years of experience in researching, writing, and editing quality content. She loves gaming, dancing, and animals, and can usually be found under a weighted blanket with a cup of coffee and a book.

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