Picture this: the perfect home is available to rent. From the move-in date to location to amenities – it’s all falling into place. And most notably: the price is too good to be true. A showing is set up, contact information is exchanged, and an application and application fee are submitted. Maybe a deposit is paid, securing the individual’s name to this home. Upon arriving for the home showing, the agent suggests walking the property grounds until they arrive. But they never show. And they never return any calls or texts from that moment on.
Luckily, no agreement was signed, but money was lost in the form of application fees, as well as personal time pursuing a rental amidst a high-demand market. The perfect illusion is shattered and it’s back to square one.
Does this story sound familiar? It’s a story that plagues renters and owners alike – one that is becoming all too common as the breadth of phishing and scamming widens with the ever expanding advertisement platforms. North Star Property Management is no stranger to scams. But when we catch wind, we act immediately. And so, as the market begins to blossom, urban areas reawaken, and rental demand continues to climb, we wanted to share some tips for our fellow owners and renters. So let us prepare for the season ahead and set the stage for success!
Scamming Hotbed. While scam listings are no stranger to popular housing sites like Zillow and Rentals.com, the majority will be featured on sites with less administrative oversight, such as Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. In fact, Facebook Marketplace is the latest leading hotbed for scams in the property management world. We suggest either avoiding these platforms or utilizing best practices we’ve outlined below.
Phishing Tall-tale. Scam artists are clever but their goal is to take your money. They tend to significantly mark down the price to entice prospects with a bargain rent price. Best practice is to look at the rental prices in the surrounding area. Property managers want to remain competitive and attract well-qualified tenants so it wouldn’t be in their best interest to mark down the rental rate so drastically.
Another technique scammers use is downloading current listing photos and cropping out watermarks. While most property managers will watermark the center of the photo, it’s not a fail safe. If you can, find the website in the listing that the photo comes from. No website listed? Then there’s a good chance that the listing is false. Property management companies that post listings on Facebook Marketplace or Zillow will always post a link to their website. After all, that’s where property managers want their traffic to be directed to. For an example, check out one of North Star’s Zillow listings here. Notice how our name appears both as a watermark and in the left hand corner of the listing photos.
Finally, reading up on the various landlord-tenant laws can certainly be telling. There are quite a few ordinances and mandates in place that dictate how property managers enforce applications, screenings and leasing criteria. While the information is easily accessible online for scammers to read up on, current landlord-tenant law and respective pandemic moratoriums are perplexing to say the least. Having a legal team in some capacity dedicated to making sense of vague and complex law helps property managers stay informed — something that should be obvious throughout correspondence.
Best practice is to call the property manager directly and ask specific questions about laws and ordinances. Other correspondence red flags to consider:
- A significant difference in response time when asked about laws and ordinances
- If the agent suggests walking and/or viewing the property unaccompanied
- If the agent suggests leasing before viewing without including arrangements to tour the property before taking possession
So what should you do if you stumble across a listing that appears to be a scam?
Take Action. Property managers are not privy to scam ads until they’re brought to our attention. Once we’re made aware, we ask for the link, report the ad and guide the tenant to the proper listing. But unfortunately, our involvement may not always be as timely as the scammer’s. And so, we suggest renters do the following if they are wary and/or have confirmed a listing is a scam:
- Trust your instincts and do a little digging. When it comes to the housing industry, if it’s too good to be true, it most likely is.
- Only apply and submit fees on verified sites. Verified sites are web pages that are certified under FCC regulations. Best way to determine whether a site is certified is to look for the following:
- Trust seal
- URL begins with “https:/” versus “http:/”
- Company-specific contact information (i.e. email@example.com vs. firstname.lastname@example.org)
Please note that verifying certification is not the same as verifying whether the web pages is secure. Website security and legitimacy aren’t always one in the same.
- Report the ad immediately. Every site will have contact info specific to scams. Best to report the ad real time to give the site a leg up in circumventing further phishing. And even though involving the property management company won’t make a difference, just letting them know provides insight into phishing trends and whether any improvements and/or arrangements can be made to evade scams.
- Contact non-emergency police if the agent is not verifiable and suggests viewing and/or walking the grounds unaccompanied. We know this may seem drastic, but when asking a retired police officer what he might suggest, he said that with the connections between city, state and federal precincts, non-emergency reports may link larger networks of organized crime.
Scamming and phishing isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s one that preys on the unsuspecting and uneducated. As property managers, we have a stake in ensuring our community and clients are well protected. After all, North Star Property Management is family-owned and community-grown; being a resource and sharing our hard-earned knowledge is a part of our mission.