Finding a place to rent can quickly become nerve-wracking. Concerns over choosing a suitable neighborhood, price range and amenities packages are common. One troubling concern that may not usually come to mind is whether the advertised rental exists in the first place.
Rental fraud often shows up in classified ads — online or in print — for properties at prices well below prevailing market rates. Scammers know shoppers are looking for the best deal, and a low-ball price can attract bargain hunters.
Scammers may use pictures or descriptions from legitimate rental property ads to entice their victims, substituting their own contact information for that in the real ad. Or they may hijack the email accounts of property owners of reputable sites. In other cases, they make up listings for nonexistent properties.
Better Business Bureau also has issued warnings about services that promise to give you leads on apartments or homes to rent but deliver very little, homes that are not in your requested price range or rentals no longer available.
Since the beginning of this year, BBB has received more than 2,000 complaints in the property rental and rental service industries. Recent investigations have focused on a rash of rental property scams.
A recent complainant told BBB she lost money to a thief while trying to rent a property she saw listed on a popular website. In a separate case, a man said his home was listed for rent without his authorization on Craigslist just days after he listed the house for sale.
BBB has tips to help you make wise rental decisions:
Check out rental companies or websites with BBB before you put down a deposit or meet a rental agent. BBB Business Profiles include a company's contact information and a rating based on whether the company abides by BBB Standards, which require companies to advertise honestly and tell the truth.
Get the rental agreement in writing before providing a deposit or rental fee, and make sure any verbal promises are covered in the agreement. Review all terms and conditions, including the cancellation policy.
Never pay the entire fee up front, especially for a vacation rental. If an agent wants you to pay by wire transfer or a prepaid debit card, it is probably a scam.
Beware of fake contact information. If you are renting from a well-known rental company, such as a vacation rental site, look them up online and compare advertised 800 numbers or email addresses with the contact information on the site. If you are renting from a website, check its URL to be sure it is not a subdomain of another site.
If the price seems too good to be true, it could be a sign the listing is not legitimate. Compare the cost to similar nearby properties.
If at all possible, inspect the property before you rent it. Never put down money unless you are sure the rental is real.
Sean Spence is the Mid-Missouri regional director for Better Business Bureau.