Any number of scams are designed to separate would-be renters from their money. But one recent, rather novel, scheme caught the eye of the Federal Trade Commission, which came down hard on the perpetrator.
It seems that Michael Brown and his company, the Credit Bureau Center, ran fake property ads on Craigslist and, with the promise of “free” credit reports, tricked people into enrolling in costly credit-monitoring services.
False advertising is a popular way to swindle renters. It is one of the five most common rental ruses, according to rental site Apartment List.
But the credit-monitoring gambit is something new. Brown and his co-conspirators offered to take their marks on tours of properties they either did not own or had no right to rent, but only if they first agreed to obtain supposedly free credit reports from CBC, formerly known as MyScore.
Unbeknownst to the renters, they were auto-enrolled into a credit monitoring service that charged $29.94 a month. Many had no idea until the unexpected fees started showing up on their credit card statements.
Watchdog agency FTC, which works to educate and protect consumers, didn’t take kindly to the swindle. Neither did a federal judge, who granted the FTC’s motion for summary judgment and ordered Brown et al. to repay $5.2 million in restitution to defrauded consumers.
Renters are not likely to run into this kind of scam again. But there are several others they need to be aware of.
According to Apartment List’s research, 5.2 million renters have lost money to a scamster. Around 43 percent of renters have run into a listing they suspected was not on the up-and-up.
Inexperienced renters are more likely to be separated from their money, Apartment List found. Nearly 10 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds reported losing money, compared to 6.4 percent of all renters. The median loss was $400, but one in three people were duped out of $1,000 or more, and 17 percent of those lost $2,000 or more.
Scams exist in many forms, according to Apartment List’s chief economist Igor Popov and senior research associate Sydney Bennet. Here are the five most common rip-offs:
- Bait-and-switch. A different property is advertised than the available rental, and the scammer tries to collect a deposit or get a lease signed for the substitute property. They ask the renter to pay the first month’s rent and security deposit, in cash, then abscond with the money, never to be seen again.
- Phantom rentals. A scam artist makes up listings for places that either don’t exist or aren’t rentals, and tries to lure renters with low prices. Again, cash is requested.
- Hijacked ads. A fake landlord posts advertisements for a real property, typically houses that are actually for sale, with altered contact information.
- Missing amenities. In the equivalent to “catfishing” in online dating, a real rental is described as having features and amenities it lacks in order to collect a higher rent. Here, landlords try to get renters to sign the lease before they notice the missing features. The most common items that are promised but don’t exist are laundry facilities or in-unit washers and dryers; air conditioning; pools, decks or other outdoor spaces; dishwashers; and gyms.
- Already leased. A real or fake landlord attempts to collect application fees or security deposits for a rental that is already leased.
Visiting a property in person can help identify many of these scams, but renters moving from other cities often sign leases sight-unseen.
Another popular rental ruse has to do with vacation properties, in which people agree to lease places for a week or more from afar without ever seeing the apartment or house in person. Here, scammers run fake ads and ask you to wire a down payment –- or even a month’s entire rent. Then, when you show up for your holiday, the place isn’t what it was said to be, or doesn’t exist at all.
According to the FTC, which has prosecuted many rental fraud perpetrators, most scammers start with real rentals, replace the owner’s or agent’s contact info with their own, and place the listing on a different site. To get people to act fast, they often ask for a lower-than-typical rent or promise great amenities. It’s always nice to score a bargain, but a below-market rent is often a sign of a scam.
“Their goal is to get your money before you find out the truth,” the agency says.
Renters have very little protection under federal, state or local laws. So to avoid being had, the FTC advises against wiring money to pay a security deposit, application fee or first month’s rent. “Wiring money is like sending cash,” the agency warns. “Once you send it, you can’t get it back.
Also, don’t pay before you sign a lease. Before paying, visit the apartment or ask someone you trust to visit on your behalf. Don’t be rushed, either. Ignore anyone pressuring you to make a quick decision.
Do some extra research to confirm the property exists, and get a copy of the lease and read it before signing and handing over your money.
Many landlords will want you to pay for a credit report, but you can obtain a truly free one from AnnualCreditReport.com or by calling (877) 322-8228. Always check your credit before applying for an apartment or rental house. If you have issues, better to find them yourself, rather than paying a landlord to do so.
Lew Sichelman has been covering real estate for more than 50 years. He is a regular contributor to numerous shelter magazines and housing and housing-finance industry publications. Readers can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.