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Rental Scams Are Everywhere
Vanessa Garcia / Money; Shutterstock

The weirdest thing happened when my husband and I moved into our new rental home this winter. As we were unpacking the moving truck, a man we didn’t know walked up to the house.

“Do you know where the landlord is?" he asked. "I applied to rent this house but never heard back."

We’d signed the lease a month before, but according to this stranger, he'd applied online that very week, and even turned over a $25 application fee.

Perplexed, we put him in touch with our landlord, who told us the property had been fraudulently advertised on Apartments.com, a popular online marketplace, for $700 cheaper than the listing she'd created. The house, obviously, wasn’t actually for rent.

John Breyault, vice president of public policy, telecommunications, and fraud at the National Consumers League, says these rental scams are more common than people think. According to the FBI's most recent Internet Crime Report, there were more than 11,000 complaints about real estate and rental scams in 2019 — and that doesn't account for the many thousands of fraudulent listings that go unreported.

Over the last year, as the coronavirus pandemic has forced many property owners to pivot to virtual showings and online lease-signings, rental scams have surged across the country. In Thorton, Colo., three families fell for the exact same rental scam last April — each one losing upwards of $2,000 in the process, according to KDVR in Denver. Just last month, a California couple handed over $13,000 to someone pretending to be a landlord, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

The M.O. for these scams is simple. Scammers post fake listings on rental sites like Zillow, Redfin, Apartments.com and Craigslist with the goal of tricking people into paying phony application fees and rent deposits. These fake ads are usually copycat versions of past or current listings, and often use ripped photos from legitimate ones.