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Beware of online rental scams and phishing schemes when browsing for apartment rentals

There are many beautiful apartments in New York City, Paris, London, or wherever you might be searching, and you deserve to be seeing as many of them as you’d like. Yet at the same time, you also deserve to not have your time wasted by scams, and you deserve to feel and be completely safe during the entire apartment-hunting process.

And while there were always things to be concerned about when you were hunting for an apartment, vacation rental or roommate share apartment, the increased use of online platforms to advertise apartments for rent (to the degree that it’s hard to imagine an apartment for rent without a listing) means that you can fall prey to a host of new dangers and scams, many of which can cost you hundreds of dollars (or even thousands) and set you back weeks on your search.

We want to provide you with at least a base knowledge of how to protect yourself and reduce risk, so please read through the following carefully and consider it as you go on your search:

Common Scams to Watch Out For

While tricks and scams certainly aren’t limited to what’s on this list, you can start here to consider some of the most common concerns to be on the lookout for. Many of these can happen both online and in real life, and websites can’t always protect from these problems, so always be vigilant while remaining excited in your search.

  • Don’t pay for anything until you or someone you trust implicitly has seen the place in person. False listings are common, and with more stock photos and other images that could be used to create one, many people wouldn’t be able to reliably tell the difference.

AGENT TIP: Sometimes you can’t view listings in person because you are booking a furnished apartment, roommate share, or vacation rental from out of town or overseas, that’s when it’s particularly important to work with a licensed real estate agency. New York Habitat goes on a listing appointment and checks each property they list making sure it meets listing standards and is legally able to rent for the length of time offered. They also take the apartment photos themselves whenever possible and ensure the pictures advertised are representative of the actual property.

  • A common scam is for an open house for an apartment or home to occur, only to disappear after people have paid an application fee or something similar. This is a bit of a more intensive process for a scammer than a false listing, but it occurs often enough to worry about.
Infographic of a shield with lock and keyhole over images of a credit card, ID, finger print, piggy bank and financial statement

Keep your personal and financial information secure from identity theft by dealing only through a licensed real estate agent or broker

  • You should also be careful with your information until you know who you’re talking to is legitimate. Identity theft is a big business, and something you don’t need to be dealing with as you’re searching for a new place. Sharing some information such as your name and email address is fine, but keep financial information off-limits unless you are dealing with a licensed real estate agent.
  • Less scrupulous real estate agents might post a listing for an apartment, vacation rental or room in a roommate share apartment that’s too good to be true, only to later say that the apartment is no longer available, but they’re very excited to show you others that are available. Don’t fall for it, and check in with other sources if possible about the agent in question. If you have an agent or website you trust, stick with them. Keep in mind apartments do get rented very quickly in certain cities and sometimes agents can only offer alternative options if an apartment is no longer available, however if an ad seems too good to be true it probably is.
  • Beware of instances where certain items such as background checks or deposits are far more costly than they should be. Someone might be charging more than it costs and leaving you to pay for the difference.

AGENT TIP: In July 2019 New York State passed a law prohibiting rental security deposits in excess of 1 month’s rent

Infographic of two people, one talking about money with dollar symbols in conversation bubbles and the other listening with his arms folded in a skeptical way

Be cautious when someone who is not a real estate agent asks for money upfront

  • Be careful of last-minute changes and fees. Scammers or less reputable landlords might try to get you invested and then move forward with increasingly shady actions or expensive fees, thinking you’ll pay them just to move forward. Be wary and consider how they might treat you down the line if you’re already being handled poorly before the paperwork is signed.

Finally, be on the lookout and read up on newer scams if you can. The internet changes rapidly, and while some scams are evergreen, there is always a new cycle to look out for.

What to Look For

If you’re willing to do some research (and you should be), then you can likely find how an agent, firm, broker, or whoever is helping you is registered. Ideally, a good website will tell you this information upfront. The specific qualifications may vary by location, but there is likely some means of verification and identification. You can also check the reputation of any company as well as complaints against them with a neutral party where the company is located like the Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan NY. If you find nothing, proceed with caution, if not turn around entirely from the situation.

AGENT TIP: In NY you can search the New York Department of State website to verify an individual agent or agency. You can check if an agency or agent is licensed in NY here. New York Habitat and its agents/brokers are licensed with the NY State Department of State.

What to Avoid

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Educate yourself on common scams and situations to avoid when renting an apartment online

Just like there are things to look for, there are things to watch out for when renting apartments online as well. Avoid any of the following:

  • Any situation where you aren’t getting nearly enough information. You should have everything you need to know whether the apartment should make your shortlist or not.
  • As mentioned earlier, avoid any listing that wants any money or financial information up-front before seeing the apartment unless you are dealing with a reputable licensed agency.
  • Any transaction that’s entirely online unless you are working with a reputable real estate agency. Eventually you need to see the place, and anyone trying to rent an apartment should be eager to have people stop by, or at least make an appointment to do so.
  • If a listing is dishonest in one or two ways, it’s probably hiding other things.
  • Blurry photos, or a set that clearly isn’t giving you the full picture. It’s not hard to create a reasonably-decent listing, and if something seems like it’s being hidden, it probably is. You don’t need to waste your time on that.

How Communication Should Be

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A successful online rental requires communication, investigation, documentation and trustworthiness

In many ways, the communication you should expect from a prospective landlord in terms of safety mirrors the communication you should hope for in most situations. You want someone who is forthright, easily found online in a professional manner (or the company can be easily researched) and communicates in at least a somewhat professional manner.

You should also be talking to someone who isn’t afraid to provide verification, proof, or additional information in a reasonable amount of time. Anyone legitimate should be happy to provide some identification and show you relevant documents at any time and understand any questions that are for the purposes of your security. Given how easily transferred information is online, there’s no excuse for not providing scans or photos.

Finally, every important bit of information should be in writing, and if you can get a digital copy of documents early on, that’s all the better. That being noted, you should always read the specific document you are signing in full to see if there’s any last-minute changes. Don’t worry, they can wait for you.

General Apartment Hunting Safety Tips

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Dealing with licensed professionals connected with IATAN, REBNY, and NY Department of State is worth the fee and peace of mind

Your safety is paramount, which is why you should engage in the following practices during your search:

  • If you’re going to see an apartment or meet with someone online, bring someone with you or at least let someone else know where you’re going, asking them to check in with you after a while. Think about how you might want to be safe on a first date, as what you’re dealing with won’t be far off.
  • This may seem like a given, but stick to safe and trustworthy websites when collecting information and searching for places. Look for websites that encourage all the best practices listed in this article.
  • Don’t pay for anything in cash, and similarly avoid wiring money online unless you know you are working with a licensed real estate agency that is bound by the fiduciary duties of accounting, reasonable care, confidentiality, full disclosure, loyalty and obedience. Try to use checks (or credit cards) where possible, as they create a better trail and are more easily reversed if you notice something is amiss quickly.

AGENT TIP: Keep in mind that when dealing with peer-to-peer websites that have a 3rd party collecting or holding money for the landlord, you may be subject to their terms when it comes to disputes over deductions or forfeiture of security deposits, giving up your right to take the dispute to court.

  • Trust your instincts. If something feels off to you, don’t let your eagerness to find a new apartment make you ignore those feelings. They’re usually right. This is equally important online and offline.
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Check out what other people have to say about a company or website on online review sites

Finding your new apartment can be an exciting, thoughtful, and even stressful process, but it doesn’t have to be an unsafe one. Prospective landlords or property managers should be open, happy to meet with you, and forthright about the apartment. Websites should encourage all of this. Ultimately, if you’re ever nervous or suspicious about the situation, don’t force it and move on. If something seems too good to be true, be careful. There will be other apartments and other opportunities. We wish you the best of luck with your safe and soon to be successful search.