Need to rent? Avoid these fake landlord scams

Peter Warden
The Mortgage Reports editor

In this article:

Fake landlord scams aren’t new. People have been posing as landlords to relieve unwary renters of their cash for longer than anyone can remember.

But we now know:

  1. A whopping 5.2 percent of all renters have lost money this way
  2. You can protect yourself from nearly all these crimes if you follow some simple rules
  3. Once you know what to look for, you can shop for your next apartment or house with more confidence

Read on to learn how to spot the most common cons.

Verify your new rate (Feb 24th, 2020)

How bad’s the problem?

Back in June 2018, the Apartment List website polled more than 1,000 renters about their experiences of fraud. The survey revealed:

  • Nearly half (43.1 percent) had spotted an ad for a rental they believed was fraudulent
  • More than one in 20 (6.4 percent) had personally lost money to a rental scam — translated to the whole population, that’s 5 million victims
  • Of those who’d lost money, nearly half (49 percent) had lost more than $500 — and a third of those (31.4 percent) lost more than $1,000
  • Younger renters were significantly more likely to be victims of these criminals than older ones

These scams aren’t rare cons that happen to other people. All renters are at risk.

Related: Buy or rent? Buying still beats renting in most markets

Most of these scammers have a simple goal: to get you to part with some money and rent a home that belongs to someone else. They might persuade you to pay them just an application fee. But, ideally, they’d like a security deposit and first and last month’s rent, too.

There are many variations on this single theme. Sometimes, they’ll write their own ad for an imaginary home. Or they might just cut and paste a real ad they’ve lifted from another website. All they have to do is change the location (the advertised properties are often in different cities) and the advertiser’s email address.

What are the most common fake landlord scams?

Occasionally, they gain access to a vacant rental unit. That means you’ll see a solid brick-and-mortar home and you’ll meet someone you assume to be the landlord or an agent. But the scammers won’t own the property. They might have rented the place for a week or two or they may have conned (or even broken) their way in.

Related: Craigslist rental scams – and how to avoid them

Either way, by the time you come to move in, it may well be occupied by a legitimate tenant. Even if it isn’t, you’ll have no right to live there.

The red flags you must look out for

There’s no single red flag that will definitively tell you someone’s trying to scam you over a rental. Some legitimate landlords might innocently raise one or two.

Related: Apartment finder websites key to good rentals

But the more warning signs you spot, the more cautious you should be. Indeed, if you’re getting a bad vibe, it’s okay (and probably smart) to walk away.


Here are 10 bad signs:

  1. The listing lacks detail — most professional landlords avoid being vague and know how to describe a unit properly
  2. The listing is poorly worded, uses foreign spellings or contains an excess of capital letters
  3. There are no photos — why wouldn’t there be?
  4. The photos have a watermark — You’d expect a landlord to have clean photos, not ones copied from a real estate agent’s website or the multiple listing service (MLS)
  5. Your contact wants you to pay by cash or wire transfer — why’s he so keen on an untraceable payment?
  6. You’re asked to sign a lease or rental agreement before seeing the property — or to sign a blank or incomplete document
  7. Your contact claims that he (or the landlord, if he’s saying he’s an agent) is out of the country or too far away to make a personal appearance
  8. The rent is way below the market value for comparable units — There’s a reason things are called too good to be true
  9. Your contact promises there won’t be a screening process — why wouldn’t she want to make sure that you’re a good, creditworthy tenant?
  10. You’re asked for social security, bank account or credit card numbers too early in the process — do these criminals have a sideline in identity theft?

It’s possible for a legitimate landlord to do things a little differently — after all, many are just individuals with no professional experience. But wouldn’t you rather go with one who conducts business by the book?

How to avoid being conned

Your first line of defense is to walk away from those red flags. But suppose you really, really don’t want to miss this amazing opportunity. What can you do to move forward while still protecting yourself?

Well, you can carry out some checks of your own:

  • Consult county records to establish who owns the unit (usually the County Recorder or Appraiser has this information)
  • Carry out a Google reverse image search — Upload photos from the ad to Google to see if they’ve appeared elsewhere on the web, perhaps in a different listing in a different city
  • Ask to speak to the unit’s existing or last tenants — and other tenants, if any, who rent from the landlord
  • If the landlord says he’s just bought the home, he’ll have plenty of supporting documentation to show you
  • Search the web for very similar ads — You might find the property being advertised by somebody else
  • Do an online search for the landlord’s name and city — Most people have some online presence, if only on Facebook (is that him in the photos?) and in the white pages
  • If your contact says she works for a property management company, check out that company thoroughly
  • Inspect the unit before signing

None of these is 100-percent foolproof. The con artist might have hijacked the real landlord’s identity. She might have set up a fake Facebook page. And the “tenants” he puts you in touch with might be in on the deal.

But there’s a good chance you’ll uncover fake landlord scams before you hand over any money, providing you carry out those checks.

Rogue real landlords

Most landlords are decent, honest business people. But there are a few rogues around.

Watch out for those who try to get you to sign before you’ve inspected the rental property. They wouldn’t be the first to claim there are laundry facilities or even HVAC in a unit where none exists.

Indeed, be sure all the oral promises and descriptions your future landlord makes are included in writing in the lease or rental agreement. Once you’ve signed, you’ll struggle to prove he said he’d pay for utilities — or do pretty much anything else.

Relax! There are more than 40 million rental units in the United States. And most tenants move between them without serious problems. As long as you take these few simple steps to protect yourself, your next move’s likely to go fine.

Verify your new rate (Feb 24th, 2020)