Rental Scams: Are You Falling For One?


It’s that time of year again. The PCS season is in full swing. One of the most common issues for families moving is determining their housing plan. A lot of people already know they do not want to live on-post/base and therefore are diving deep into the rental home search. Since the military does not offer us an all-inclusive paid trip to the next duty station many of these transactions are done at a distance.

Unfortunately, with the internet we have seen a huge rise in rental home scams. As far as we know, the Hijack and the Phantom are the two most common types of rental scams.  Perfect monikers for what we consider to be such heinous crimes. What exactly are these scams? How do you spot them and then what do you do? What actions can you take (in addition to reporting it) to ensure you are working with the legitimate owner?

The Hijack – as it implies, takes a real advertisement for a house for rent (or even for sale), alters the advertisement and places it on another website with new contact information directly to the hijacker or hijacks the email addresses. When unsuspecting applicants or buyers contact the owner or property manager, they are actually contacting the scammer directly, who then proceeds to act like the owner or property manager.

The Phantom – This type of scam makes up advertisement listings for homes that don’t even exist or are not on the market.  They tempt you with a great rental in a great location at an unbelievable price.

How do you spot a scam?

1. Follow the old adage; if it sounds to good to be true, then it probably is.  Use your common sense, you will not find a super cute remodeled townhouse  in Arlington, VA for $800 a month.  You can’t even find a crummy one for less than $1,800 a month.  If there is a place that is priced significantly lower to all other listings you have found in a particular area.  Proceed with caution. Yes, this could of been a typo, but most likely not.

2. The owner is out of the country. We have all received those emails about a friend who is stuck in a foreign country and needs money.  This is similar to that sob story, usually something along the lines of…being Christian missionaries and in a foreign country on their mission and they need to sell their home fast for money to help with the mission.  The stories get very creative and heartfelt.  Don’t fall for it, they are trying to rip you off.  However, in our military community it is common for a family who is now stationed across the country (or in a foreign country) to rent or sell their home from afar.  Before, you write it off as a red flag, do a google search and verify the servicemember through the a military branch records search.

3. If an owner or landlord asks for a security deposit or first months rent before you sign a lease, there is waving a big red flag in front of you.  Notice it.

4. If a landlord or owner wants you to wire them money, that again is a huge red flag and now they are hitting you over the head with it.

5. If someone asks for your personal financial information over the phone such a bank account number or your social security number, DON’T give it to them.

6  This last tell tale sign its a scam and our all time favorite is when they write the advertisement in bad, we mean, very bad English.  It may go something like this “The kitchen very please you, you will favour the toilet room,

If you come across a scam what do you do?

The internet seems like a big place to hide, but law enforcement agencies have teams of investigators just for internet fraud.  First, contact your local law enforcement.  Then, go to the FTC website, and finally contact the website the listing was posted on.

Don’t assume someone else will report a scammer. Reporting these online scammers are really the only way to make them fold. They are looking for the quick and easy money, if it become difficult they will find a new market to scam.

As military families we rely heavily on internet research to get the scoop on our new hometown and a home search is a big part of that.  And thank goodness we have it, could you imagine the old days without the internet?  No Thanks!  We want to give you some tips to make your feel comfortable in your search and avoid being what the scammers are looking for, an easy target.

1. Search sites like Google and Facebook for the owner/property managers name, phone number and email address. See what you find.  You will be amazed at how much information will come up.  You might feel like your stalking, but it’s not, we call it research.

2. Do a public records search for the property address.   Who are the owners listed on the recording? Do a google search for the property address. Sites like Trulia and Zillow will provide the date of the last transaction recording.  This may not be the actual close date but it will be shortly thereafter. Ask the owner/property manager when they purchased the property. Do these dates jive?

3. Request additional photos of the property.  Anyone posting their property for rent or sale online should be able to provide you with plenty of photos.

4. Ask the owner/property manager several questions.  Ask specific questions about the floor plan.  Ask about the utilities.  What companies provide the utilities, and if garbage service is included in the water bill.  An owner will definitely be able to answer these questions.

5. Call the utility companies and inquire about the average utility bill.  Call the water company and confirm that garbage is included with the water bill. Cross-check this with the owners/manager.

Most importantly, get on the phone and contact the owner/property manager. A good conversation about the specifics of the property will give you a lot of clues. Ask several questions.  Ask about the local amenities, about schools, the military installation, and shopping. Ask specific questions about distance from the home to those places.

If the owner/property manager claims to be a military family, you will know it once you start talking to them.  Remember, we have the special language of acronyms that make it easy to identify fakes.  I mean how many civilians know what LES, PCS, TLE, BAH, BAS, TDY, SGT, MAJ, FRG, FRSA, CSM, CG, 1SG are anyway. If they don’t understand these terms they could be portraying a false identity.

We are not trying to scare you or over blow the situation. There are certainly plenty of great landlords that rent sight-unseen. We know we have both done it. But with the rise in these scams it is best to be aware of the types and how to avoid them.

Have you ever come across a rental scam? Or has anyone ever used your property as part of their scam?

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