Rental Scams: How to Avoid Being a Victim

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By AJ Smith

For most of us, the largest chunk of our income goes to paying for a roof over our heads. Whether you are renting or buying, you want to make sure you aren't being taken advantage of. If you are a renter, there are some popular scams you need to watch out for.

Situations to Avoid: Illegal subleases are actually fairly common, especially in urban areas with a shortage of rental properties, like New York. A sublease is when you lease an apartment from a renter. An illegal sublease is when this isn't allowed and is done anyway. Tenants of illegal subleases can be evicted or fined.

You also want to watch out for people who pose as legitimate landlords or agents and demand money before you sign a lease. They take the money, and you still don't have a rental. Legitimate landlords and rental agents do not ask for security deposits before a lease is ready to be signed. There have been reports of a rental scam similar to those "Nigerian Prince" email scams. These thieves claim to live abroad and own property in the United States. They request money to be sent or wired to them.

Identity thieves pretend to be landlords or rental agents with the goal of stealing your identity. You do not need to give your Social Security number to simply look at an apartment. Becoming an identity theft victim can do major damage to your credit.

How to Spot a Scam: Often scammers give signs in the very first contact that they are not to be trusted. Pay attention to clues and proceed with caution. When communicating with potential landlords via email (in response to Craigslist ads or other real estate classified ads) watch out for generic greetings to Sir or Madam. Also be wary of emails full of misspellings -- these communications are business dealings and should be professional.

Sometimes you may need to rent a home without seeing it (if, for example, you are being relocated for work on a short time frame) but avoid dealing with people who pressure you to sign without seeing a home before you provide money.

Take Action: Don't be afraid to ask questions. In places like New York, where real estate goes quickly, you may feel pressured to act fast, but this is a big decision. If you feel unnecessary stress from one party, consider it a red flag.

Do research -– check property records to see who actually owns the building you are thinking of moving into. Check to see if this information matches what you are being provided. If it's not, ask why.

Maybe there's a logical explanation or maybe you are saving yourself from being scammed. Try not to be too enthusiastic. If you appear too eager, you open yourself up to not getting the best deal for your money. Along those lines, be wary of anyone who says you don't need to sign a lease. A lease offers legal protection to you and the landlord for this business transaction.

Choosing a home isn't easy. Don't let your emotions cloud the fact that this is ultimately a business decision. You are paying for something and want to make sure you get what you pay for.

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