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How to Spot an Apartment Rental Scam

By Amy Zimmer | May 21, 2014 7:07am
 If a rental deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is, experts say.
If a rental deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is, experts say.
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MANHATTAN — It looked like a dream apartment — a newly renovated one-bedroom with stainless steel appliances, a "friendly" landlord and access to the backyard for $1,000 a month on a quiet Sheepshead Bay block.

But Evan Rodriguez, a media analyst, suspected something was amiss when the person he contacted from the Craigslist ad asked him to wire $200 to a Western Union account for a credit check before showing the apartment.

"They said they wouldn't show us anything until we could show we were good renters," Rodriguez, 32, recounted of his 2008 house hunt. "They said, 'We've had too many people waste our time.'"

This and other potential scams are not uncommon in New York's real estate market, particularly as renting season heats up after Memorial Day. Many new rental search websites often employ algorithms to verify listings are accurate and display warnings if it might have false information.

Still, "there's no perfect system, so renters still need to take additional measures," said Joe Charat, CEO of rental search site Naked Apartments.

Here are some tips from experts on how to avoid possible scams:

1. If it's too good to be true, it probably is

With low vacancy rates and high rents, anything that seems like a steal probably isn't real, said John Kobs, CEO of listings site Apartment List. 

"The only place you'll find a luxurious, penthouse condo on the Upper East Side for $1,500 a month is in your dreams."

Renters should familiarize themselves with the price range for apartments with similar amenities in the neighborhoods they're searching, Charat suggested. His site, for instance, makes that process easier by flagging an apartment if it appears to cost significantly less than others in the area, stating how much below market rate it's listed for.

2. Never pay before seeing an apartment

Alarm bells should ring if someone requests money before showing an apartment, most experts agree.

Sometimes listings will give complicated stories and ask you to wire money into bogus accounts, said Lee Lin, co-founder of the RentHop search site.

"They say they can overnight the keys to you, or they'll tell you they'll give your name to the doorman and you can just show your ID," Lin said.

The keys never arrive. The doorman has no idea who you are.

3. Bad grammar and other red flags in listings

Be wary if a listing is riddled with poor grammar and lots of capital letters.

These "are red flags for cut and paste template scam emails. Meaning, you likely aren't the only one being scammed," Kobs said.

It's also not uncommon for someone to use a Google Voice number so it looks like the right area code, "when someone is trying to make you think he or she isn't living out of the country," he added.

If you call a phone number and it just goes to voicemail, proceed with caution, Lin advised, adding other warning signs include an email address with a domain different from a typical New Yorker's or posts at odd hours.

4. Ask for documentation

Scammers might pose as agents, so check credentials.

"Renters should ask for the agent's 'pocket card' and confirm that their ID matches the name on the card," Charat said.

If you're dealing directly with a landlord or someone subletting an apartment and something seems fishy, ask to see documentation that they own, represent or are leasing the apartment, he added.

To verify a landlord, renters can look up an apartment's tax bills at NYC e-service. If the landlord doesn't match the tax record, ask for proof that they manage the property, like a utility bill.

For subletters, it's important to closely read the lease they're taking over, Charat said. "And just like when meeting an agent, make sure IDs match all names on any documentation."

5. Be wary of the "bait and switch"

Some brokers lure clients to a "seemingly great apartment" that suddenly comes off the market when you check it out, Kobs said.

"You'll probably want to call it quits here before the broker starts dragging you around the city showing you a bunch of other less-than-amazing apartments," he advised.

But Lin wanted to cut brokers some slack.

"Just because the broker offers to show you more listings doesn't make him or her a bad person," he said. "It's easier for them to show you three or four to get your reaction."

6. Watch out for exaggerations

Sometimes brokers embellish listings, perhaps advertising a lower rent when factoring in a free month or by calling a one-bedroom a "flexible two-bedroom" where a pressurized wall can go up, Lin said.

"Which will get more clicks?" Lin asked. "The broker is just posting the maximum size when the walls are not in yet. It's not exactly a scam, but it's an exaggeration."

Have you been the victim of a real estate scam? Tell us in the comments below or tweet us at @dnainfo.