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Be cautious of properties that are offered below market value. If it’s too good to be true, it likely is. Stock photo
Community CommentaryOpinion

Commentary: How to avoid rental scams

Rental housing in San Diego County is a precious commodity and usually comes at premium cost.

Now, bad actors are taking advantage of increased demand, by using popular payment apps and COVID-19 social distancing practices to scam trusting consumers and avoid detection.

Rental scams have historically been a problem for consumers and law enforcement. Fraudsters target hopeful renters using fake or hijacked property listings with attractive pricing.

In fake listings, scammers post pictures of properties they have no association with, then create a false advertisement to lure renters. 

Hijacked property listings involve targeting an actual rental listing and reposting it with the scammer’s e-mail and phone number.

When a potential renter shows interest, fraudsters rely on high-pressure sales tactics to create a sense of urgency, requiring a deposit to hold the property.

Once the scammer receives the money, they disappear.

In the past, it was easier to identify scams. Scammers required money wires or cash, avoided in-person contact and refused to allow renters to tour a property without first paying a deposit — all red flags that would have derailed the scam.

But now, those practices are normal and bad actors are taking advantage of the perfect storm that relies on electronic communication, the ease of electronic transactions such as Venmo or PayPal and avoids in-person interactions.

Here are ways scammers work:

• They place ads on websites such as Craigslist and Zillow and social media apps, often listing the properties below market value to entice unsuspecting renters. 

• They take advantage of social distancing protocols by avoiding in-person meetings and requiring electronic communication and money transfers. 

• When potential renters ask for a tour prior to paying, scammers use technology to provide fictious virtual tours or conduct video tours of a hijacked property listing. 

As new methods for conducting business change, it has become more difficult to identify rental scammers, but there are still some telltale signs of fraud. Here are some tips to evade rental scams:

• Be cautious of properties that are offered below market value. If it’s too good to be true, it likely is.

• Use caution with ads that have significant grammatical errors or misspellings. A legitimate rental listing should be professional.

• Verify the rental by checking known real estate websites to ensure the home exists, is located at the listed address and is available as a rental.

• Do an online search of the rental company to see if there are any bad reviews or warnings of scams about it.

• Be cautious of high-pressure rental tactics requiring you to make a deposit or payment quickly. Speed and urgency are the fraudster’s tools.

• Meet your landlord in person. Avoid a completely cyber transaction which could make it difficult to identify the other party.

• Never make a deposit or payment before seeing the property and signing a lease.

• Make sure the owner or agent has access to the rental unit. Tour the unit or have someone you trust tour the unit.

• Don’t settle for an exterior tour.

• Never wire money or pay in cash, cryptocurrency, or gift cards. Wiring money is the same as sending cash and impossible to recover.

If you were the victim of a rental scam, report the incident to your local police agency or request a San Diego District Attorney Real Estate Fraud Complaint Form at [email protected].

Summer Stephan is the district attorney for San Diego County.