Apartment Hunting? Don’t Fall for This Home Hijacking Scam

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Renting in a competitive real estate market tends to get messy. For the right price, some apartment-seekers are more than willing to put down a security deposit without meeting a landlord or signing a lease. This mistake could leave them without a place to stay or a way to get their money back, according to a report from NBC Washington.

A home hijacking scam targets potential leasers browsing apartments online. Victims are lured by properties listed below their market value. All the right information is there—pictures, the owner’s name, a legitimate address—but the person renting out the space can only be reached by text or email. They’re also not available to show the apartment in person, so the prospective tenant’s only option is to pay the deposit and first month’s rent up front—and quickly, lest another renter snatch up that great deal. Once the money has been paid, the fraudulent owner stops returning messages.

Sites like Craigslist make it easy for anyone to copy someone else’s property listing and advertise it as their own. Because looking for an affordable apartment in an expensive city already leads to some sketchy-seeming transactions, this can be a hard scam to spot, but there are a few red flags to be aware of.

If your dream apartment is listed at a too-good-to-be-true price, that may be because it is. A great price isn’t an automatic reason to count out a property, but it should definitely make you more skeptical moving forward. The biggest tip-off that you’re caught in a scam is suspicious behavior from the alleged owner. Are they conveniently out of town (forever)? Do they insist on only talking through text or email? Do they demand payments before you’ve signed a lease?

It’s also important to recognize renting protocols that may feel fishy but are actually common practice. If you’re working with a broker from a trusted firm, for example, it’s normal to pay them 15 percent of one year’s rent for the property they show you (as high as that may seem for the amount of work they're doing). When dealing with landlords, paying first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and a security deposit upfront is normal as long as you’ve already signed a contract. You may be asked to pay an application fee or put down an initial deposit prior to seeing a lease, but these rarely exceed a couple hundred bucks.

After assessing your instincts and deciding that a property listing is not to be trusted, do some extra research. Call the listed realtor directly or search the building’s tax history online to confirm its real owner. If your suspicions are confirmed, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission to prevent others from falling for the scam.

[h/t NBC Washington]