Recently, the Portland television station KATU shared a news item that caught our eye. It told the story of a local woman who fell victim to a growing form of fraud: rental scams. After searching online for a home to rent, Sloan Mickles began communicating with someone claiming to be the landlord for several area rental homes. Using a self-showing technology called Rently, the scammer gave Mickles access to lockboxes that allowed her to tour a few area homes. Eventually, Mickles decided to rent an available house in North Bethany.
After signing a lease, paying the landlord $3,000 in deposit and rental fees, and moving into the home, Mickles found out she was trespassing. As it turns out, the supposed landlord had hacked the Rently service and was arranging showings and collecting money without the property owner’s knowledge. Now, not only has Mickles lost her $3,000, but she also has to find a new place to live. As it turns out, Mickles fell victim to a kind of scam authorities say is becoming more and more common.
How Rental Scams Work
These rental scams often follow a familiar pattern. Using online services like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, scammers create fake rental listings for homes they don’t own or manage. To attract additional attention, these scammers will sometimes price their fraudulent listings below market value. Once a potential victim expresses interest, the scammer will dial up the pressure by demanding a deposit to hold the property. Often, the scammers will claim to be out of town or temporarily unavailable to facilitate a tour, which forces victims to pay deposits for homes they haven’t toured. Once they’ve paid the money, the landlord disappears, and the victim is out of luck.
In more extreme instances — like the recent example from North Bethany — scammers allow the victims to move into the property. Then, the unassuming renters are surprised when the actual owner shows up. These scams are most common in hot markets where rents are high, and low prices command attention. Or, in markets where there’s hefty competition for housing, which motivates potential renters to move fast. Unfortunately, once these scammers get their money, it’s nearly impossible to bring them to justice.
Possible Rental Scam Warning Signs
People searching for a home to rent must be on the lookout for possible rental scam warning signs. Here are a few things to watch out for while conducting your search:
- Unrealistic Rental Prices: Prospective renters should approach properties listed at below market value with great caution. Either it’s a fraud designed to capture a wider group of potential victims, or there are other problems with the property that the owners don’t want to address.
- Unavailable Landlords: If you’re only communicating with your potential landlord by email or text, that’s a big red flag. It’s even more problematic if they claim to be out of town so they can’t show you the property in-person. Legitimate property owners and managers will want to meet prospective tenants in person and be there when they tour the home for the first time.
- Up-Front Deposits: When a landlord asks for a deposit before you’ve toured the property or signed a lease, it’s a good sign you’re about to get scammed.
- Unanswered Questions: Does the landlord avoid answering specific questions about the property? Or, are they cagey when it comes to details? Legitimate property owners and managers should have nothing to hide, and they will answer reasonable questions to the best of their ability.
Most importantly, prospective renters must trust their instincts when navigating the rental process. If a situation sounds too good to be true, or, a landlord is acting suspiciously, it’s better to walk away than fall victim to a scam.
Tips for Avoiding Rental Scams
So how can prospective renters avoid falling victim to these scams? Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Visit the Property: Even if you haven’t scheduled a tour, visit the potential home in person to verify it exists and that it is vacant. Many property management companies will place signage on available listings. If you see some, visit the company’s website to confirm they own the listing.
- Schedule a Tour: You should also tour the inside of a property before paying a deposit. When you schedule a tour, make sure the landlord or property management representative can attend the tour in person.
- Be Careful How You Pay: Reputable property management companies often allow tenants to make payments on secure online portals. If a landlord requests payment via an app like Venmo or PayPal, that’s a big red flag. You’ll also have a hard time recovering this money should something go wrong. Also, be very wary about making a deposit or rental payment to an overseas location.
- Resist High-Pressure Tactics: These scammers thrive on the illusion that time is of the essence. If a landlord pressures you to sign a lease before you’re ready or pay a deposit before you’re ready, walk away. You could be a risk of falling victim to a scam.
Our Process Works
At Rent Portland Homes by Darla Andrew, we’ve developed an application process designed to protect owners and renters alike. We list all our available properties on our website with the rental terms made clear. During property tours, a Rent Portland Homes by Darla Andrew representative will be present to answer all your questions. Also, all application and leasing documents are reviewed and signed online. We’ll also make arrangements to be on-site on move-in day to collect your deposit and document the home’s condition. More importantly, we’re always available to answer questions or address concerns by phone at (503) 515-3170 or by filling out the contact form on our website.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where rental scams exist. However, we’re doing our part to prevent them from happening in the first place. By raising your awareness and exercising caution when searching for your next rental home, you can avoid falling victim to this senseless crime.