Securing Our Communities: Rental Scams

Updated: May 30, 2019

Each week, the NTIC Cyber Center highlights a different social engineering scam impacting individuals and communities within the National Capital Region. We encourage everyone to share this information with friends, colleagues, and loved ones to help reduce their risk of becoming a victim of financial fraud and identity theft.

Rental scams are a type of social engineering scheme in which perpetrators advertise fake apartment, condominium, home, or vacation rental listings with the intent of defrauding those seeking to lease such properties. These scams frequently target students, prospective residents, and tourists interested in renting short-term or long-term stay properties listed on sites such as Craigslist, AirBnB, VRBO, and others. Rental scams are particularly prevalent during busy summer months when moving and vacation seasons peak and in markets where rental properties are in high demand.

Scammers use various methods and tactics to commit this type of fraud. They steal photos from expired real estate listings found elsewhere on the internet and repost the listings as available rental properties. They also copy current rental listings and substitute their own contact information when reposting them. Scammers may claim to be assisting property owners with listings or pretend to represent a property management company. Scammers are also known to impersonate real landlords or rental agents operating in the region and they almost always advertise property listings at prices below market value to attract the maximum number of respondents and encourage interested parties to act quickly. They usually push prospective renters to lease the property sight-unseen; however, in some cases, scammers have even rented properties temporarily just to show them to interested parties.

Once prospective tenants express interest, scammers work quickly to separate them from their hard-earned money. They demand security deposits, one or more months’ worth of rent, and processing fees. They may also charge interested customers for phony background or credit checks under the guise of an application process. Scammers may even solicit personal information to steal victims’ identities. To make their ploys seem credible, scammers furnish fraudulent paperwork, fake lease agreements, or spoofed housing authority documents. Their goal is to steal payments from victims for properties that aren’t rightfully theirs to rent—or sometimes properties that do not even exist at all.

With peak rental season just around the corner, prospective tenants of any type of property should be especially vigilant for rental scams. The NTIC Cyber Center encourages readers to become familiar with the following tips for identifying and defending against these scams and to share this information with anyone who may soon be renting a property of any kind.

  • Avoid paying rental costs, security deposits, or fees in cash, via a wire transfer, or with gift cards as these payment methods are generally untraceable and irreversible.

  • Do not send money to a foreign bank account.

  • When renting locally, avoid landlords who deny requests to view properties or ask for money or credit card information up front. Try to meet the landlord in person and, if possible, speak to current tenants or neighbors before signing any paperwork.

  • When renting distant or vacation properties, ensure the property has been listed on a legitimate and reputable travel or lodging website. If you are traveling overseas, pay for rental costs with a credit card rather than cash or a wire transfer to make it easier to dispute fraudulent charges. Never provide your bank account or debit card information.

  • Search the internet for a property’s address to confirm the existence of the property, to see if any similar listings exist, and to cross-reference the address with the name of a landlord, an owner, or property management company.

  • To see if a listing’s photos may have been stolen from other websites, try searching the photos using a reverse image search tool.

  • Remember that, if the rental cost of a property seems too low, it’s probably too good to be true.

If you believe you may have encountered or been victimized by a rental scam, file a police report with a local law enforcement entity and report the incident to FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

The NTIC is governed by a privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties protection policy to promote conduct that complies with applicable federal, state, and local laws. The NTIC does not seek or retain any information about individuals or organizations solely on the basis of their religious, political or social views or activities; their participation in a particular noncriminal organization or lawful event; or their race, ethnicities, citizenships, places of origin, ages, disabilities, genders, or sexual orientations. No information is gathered or collected by the NTIC in violation of federal or state laws or regulations.