In today’s day and age, the Internet makes it possible for PCSing service members and their families to locate a home before they make a long-distance move. Renting a home online before you move can definitely save you time and money.
Although online home searches can be done safely with the right precautions, many military families are finding themselves caught up in real estate scams. Especially in a “hot” market where properties are being quickly snatched up, you may feel panicked and rushed to make a snappy decision.
Situations where military renters feel pressured to find a home within a short time frame are the perfect breeding ground for property scams, including rental scams. In worst-case scenarios, military families find themselves thousands of dollars in the hole, standing at the front door of their still-occupied “new home,” with fake keys that were never meant to unlock the door.
These property scams can take on many shapes and forms, but they all involve stealing money from unsuspecting military members simply looking for their next home. Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself from falling into a digital real estate scam.
Before you embark on your Permanent Change of Station (PCS), make sure you are not left vulnerable and educate yourself about the reality of digital real estate scams.
What is a Rental Scam?
Unfortunately, rental scams can be set up in a number of different ways to trick you into handing over your money. Common real estate scams involve criminals stealing ads, creating “listings” and attempting to persuade victims into paying money upfront.
Of course, they make sure they have the funds in hand before they disappear without a trace. As stated by the Federal Trade Commission, “Scammers often advertise rentals that don’t exist or aren’t available to trick people into sending money before they find out the truth.”
Common Real Estate Scams
With most housing rental scams taking place online, the possibilities for scammers are truly endless. While we can’t list every single method out there that is used to scam people out of money, we can identify what is most common and learn the patterns to be wary of.
Hijacked Ads Scam
Hijacking ads involve the scammer finding a real listing in any given area, changing key parts of the information, and reposting it on other rental networks. For example, the scammer may steal pictures of a property and then change the contact’s name, email, street address and more to avoid being noticed while the scam runs its course.
They may hijack and repost the ad in another state or neighborhood, leading their victims to a property that isn’t even there. They will ask inquirers to send them a “deposit” with the promise of holding the property or scheduling a showing.
This is the nasty cousin of hijacked ads, and they generally involve listings that are completely made up. These listings may include elements of actual properties, such as enticing images and attractive amenities. In addition, they often draw renters in with the promise of a “good deal,” high-desirable neighborhood or low rent.
WhatsApp Real Estate Scams
While WhatsApp has grown into the social media platform known for fraudulent occurrences, digital real estate scams can take place on any platform and an array of websites. The WhatsApp real estate scam, or social media scam, most often involves the scammers posting as a real estate agent, property manager, etc.
They’ll reach out to individuals who are publicly searching for a rental property, and they’ll adopt some form of asking for money before the inquirer even sees the home. This is because they don’t actually have a home to show!
How to Spot Rental Scams
There is one good thing about real estate scams— they’re predictable! So, if you know the common real estate scam strategies that scammers use to swindle people out of money, you can easily spot and avoid them.
Common Real Estate Scam Patterns
- Same ad, different contact: If you find the same ad listed across two different sites or social media platforms with differing contact information, dig a bit deeper. It’s likely something fishy is happening there, and it may be a good idea to let local authorities know.
- Suspicious phone numbers: Oftentimes, scammers will attach a phone number that does not lead to an actual voicemail. This is meant to lead you to send an email, where they can carefully craft messages and try to manipulate you out of money.
- Unofficial emails: Not every landlord will operate from behind an official business. However, their messages to you should be well-written. Someone writing to you in broken English may be a sign that they are emailing you from out of the country and not actually in possession of a property to rent.
- Asking for money upfront: No credible landlord will ask you for a “deposit” before they mail you a key, schedule a showing, etc. In addition, landlords are not going to ask you to “wire” them money before you’re able to view the home.
Notably, it is growing more common for landlords to ask tenants to pay for a background check. Understandably, legitimate property owners want to make sure they are renting to quality renters, and conducting background checks can be expensive.
You can handle this by asking to pay for the background check yourself directly to the source rather than sending the landlord, or potential scammer, money beforehand.
More Like This: What Can a Landlord Charge for When You Move Out?
How to Avoid Rental Scams
We’ve concluded that a typical pattern for real estate exams is for the scammer to ask you for money almost right away. This is because they don’t actually have a property available for you to move into.
Landlords who have properties to rent don’t have to force tenants to pay for things like showings or to “hold” the property. While you can learn how to spot rental scams, avoiding scammers completely should be the real goal.
Top Recommendations to Avoid Rental Scams
- Choose legit housing sites: Housing sites such as AHRN are proactive in identifying and eliminating scammers from their websites. By selecting a legitimate military rent housing website, you can browse homes with the peace of mind that you won’t run into scammers.
- Don’t wire money: Do not, I repeat, do not wire or send money to a “landlord” you haven’t met in person asking for security deposits, the first month’s rent, or any other fees before you even view the home. Remember, funds that are “wired” cannot be recovered like they can with other forms of payment.
- Be willing to lose out: Even if it means possibly missing out on a great property and a good deal, it isn’t worth it to go against your intuition and send money to a potential scammer. In fact, declining to work with someone could show legit landlords that they may be coming off as “scammy” in their practices, leading them to be more professional in the long run.
- Hire a military real estate agent: Yes, real estate agents can also help renters! They are typically paid by landlords or property managers for securing tenants, but at least you would know you are working with a “real” person and not a scammer. This is a great option for military families hoping to move long distances and needing a boots-on-the-ground expert to help them find the perfect home.
- Use an escrow service: If you do work with a property owner that insists on receiving money before you can visit the property, you can always use an escrow service such as Escrow.com. This site has a positive reputation for collecting and holding payments until the rental begins so that all parties have peace of mind and are protected from fraud.
Remember, most experienced property owners know that asking potential tenants for money upfront sounds scammy. Therefore, it is perfectly within your rights to decline to work with someone if they are pushy about receiving funds before you’ve entered the home and are ready to begin renting.
Safely Plan Your Military Move
If it looks too good to be true, it probably is! Safely planning your PCS military move involves listening to your instincts and knowing when to step away when you detect a scammer.
To get a head start on viewing homes, check out the military listings available on AHRN. By signing up, you can also receive custom-tailored housing options. Simply click “register” and follow the steps to help us understand your military housing needs.