Danielle Kane

A tight housing market with low vacancy rates and rising rental costs means more tenants may be looking for a new address this fall. Federal Eviction Moratorium has ended, and Oregon’s Eviction Moratorium has been pushed to the end of the year. People are likely looking for new (and cheaper) places to rent, making it prime time for con artists and scams.

Better Business Bureau Northwest + Pacific is warning prospective renters of con artists using real estate websites to swindle home hunters out of thousands of dollars. More than 200 people have already reported being victimized by rental scams so far in 2020, and their combined losses total upwards of $107,000.

But that’s just a piece of the pie. Realistically, several hundreds of thousands are lost to rental scams every year if you compile data from BBB, FTC and the FBI. This year, due to the financial upset of COVID-19, those numbers could be even higher.

The scam operates by stealing photos and property descriptions from legitimate listings, and then re-listing those homes or apartments as available for rent. Interested tenants are asked to pay application fees upfront after being given a reason why the property manager can’t show the property in person.

The key to making these scams work is to create a false sense of urgency. The scammer stresses that because so many other renters are interested in the property, a security deposit and/or first month’s rent is required to reserve the home in your name.

Recently, scammers have even been posing as interested renters to retrieve access codes for move-in ready homes and other legitimate places available to lease. They then pass those codes along to victims so they can see the property in person and truly create a sense that the house “for rent” is legitimate. But once the money is sent and it’s time for keys on move-in day, victims are left high and dry.

Local real estate agents have also alerted BBB that their “For Sale” listings have been fraudulently posted online as available for rent. Those agents are joined by property management companies in the region that have seen rentals scams become a growing problem during the past couple of years.

Many victims of rental scams don’t realize what is happening until they have already wired hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars in deposits — money that can never be recouped. Particularly, younger people (19-29-year olds) are 42% more likely to be victims.

Better Business Bureau tips to avoid becoming a victim:

  • Watch out for deals that are too good. Scammers lure you in by promising low rents, extra amenities and a great location. If the price seems much better than what’s offered elsewhere, it may be a scam.
  • Search online for similar properties. Do a quick search for the listing, scammer’s email address or phone number. Run a reverse google image search. If you find the same ad listed in other cities, that’s a huge red flag.
  • See the property in person. Don’t send money to someone you’ve never met for an apartment you haven’t seen. If you can’t visit an apartment or house yourself, ask someone you trust to go and confirm that it is what was advertised. And if you are being shown a property, make sure a manager or landlord is there in-person — don’t go if it’s just someone texting you a lockbox or access code.
  • Consider professional help. Contact local property management companies directly to see what they have available as opposed to relying on third party sites. You can also go through a real estate agent that offers their services to renters.

Learn more about this scam in BBB’s investigative study at bbb.org/rentalscams.

Danielle Kane is the Better Business Bureau Oregon State Director, BBB Northwest + Pacific. She can be reached at danielle.kane@thebbb.org.

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