The place seems like a dream come true: the right space, the right location, the right price. But is it really for rent? Or will the renter or traveler arrive to find their money gone with nowhere to stay?
An in-depth investigative study by Better Business Bureau (BBB) finds that fraud is widespread in the online rental home and vacation rental market, with 43% of online shoppers encountering a fake listing and more than 5 million consumers losing money to such scams.
The investigative study – Is That Rental Listing Real? A BBB Study of Rental Scams Involving Apartments, Houses and Vacation Properties – notes that 85% of consumers encountering fake rental listings do not fall for them. However, these figures suggest that the volume of rental scams lurking on the internet is staggering. Read the full study here.
According to the study, rental scams can take several forms, but perhaps most commonly, fraudsters simply copy the photo and description of a property, post it online with their own contact information and try to get a deposit and first month’s rent from the victim. The fraudster may communicate only by email or text message and may claim to be out of the country and unavailable to show the property. Once the victim sends money, the fraudster disappears.
BBB Scam Tracker has received more than 1,300 reports of rental fraud from 2016 to 2019, while the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) reports more than $37 million from January 1, 2019, through October 20, 2019, in losses associated with complaints that mention the word “rent.”
Scams also frequently appear on vacation rental websites such as Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway.com. They follow the same pattern, preying on vacationers’ inability to check out a listing before paying money for it.
Cases also have been noted of scammers luring a renter away from Airbnb to deal with the “landlord” directly or spoofing Airbnb’s site to impersonate the landlord and the company’s payment portal.
These companies likewise have warned consumers about potential fraud and taken steps against fake listings.
Tips to help avoid rental scams
Home and apartment rentals red flags
It is likely a scam if:
- The owner is out of town, and you cannot see the unit in person before sending money.
- There is a “for sale” sign in the yard.
- The alleged owner or property manager wants money through Western Union, MoneyGram, or a gift card. No legitimate business gets paid this way.
- The rent advertised is well below market rates.
Those looking for a rental should first conduct an internet search. Copy the photos in the post and use Google Image Search or Tineye.com to check for multiple listings. Also search using an interesting phrase in the description. And search for the address of the unit.
If you see the unit in person, check ID and make sure you are dealing with the real property owner or manager.
Vacation rental red flags
If you are using a vacation rental platform:
- Beware of “owners” that want you to get off the platform to communicate or send money.
- Watch out for fake websites impersonating reputable vacation platforms. Real websites can be copied and created with another name.
- Research the rental property owner and call them to be sure that they are real.
- Do a quick internet search. Does the property exist at that address? Does the same photo appear at different locations?
- Look at reviews carefully. These can be helpful, but note that crooks may fake reviews.
What to do if you are the victim of a rental scam:
- File a report with local police.
- Go to BBB.org to view a business’ BBB Business Profile, including complaints and reviews, or to file a complaint or report a scam on Scam Tracker.
- Contact the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov/complaint or by calling 877-FTC-HELP.
- File a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center.