During a hot Permanent Change of Station (PCS) season like this one, it can be hard to find a rental property. Tight timelines can make you eager to rent something -- anything -- fast. Moving long distances and pressure to get into a new home can make you vulnerable to scam artists who make their money with rental property fraud.
The most common situation is where someone advertises a property that they don't actually own or manage. They might take pictures from another listing, or use stock photos. They ask you to send a payment, often via untraceable methods, before you arrive and without seeing the property or meeting the owner/manager.
Military families can be particularly susceptible to these scams because we are used to making fast decisions without enough information. Worries about housing our family and having an address for our household goods delivery can override our usual good judgment. Keep these tips in mind to avoid getting scammed.
Signs That a Property Listing Might Be a Scam
While none of these signs necessarily means that a rental property is a scam, they should cause you to look at the situation more carefully.
- Typos and grammatical errors in listing or other communication. A professional landlord or management company will present a listing that is free of typographical or grammatical errors. Obviously, no one is perfect, and modern communication can be less formal, but errors should be noted.
- The price is too good. A surprisingly low price may be a sign that this isn't actually a valid rental property advertisement. Look for comparable properties. Even though rental and real estate apps can be inaccurate, they can get you into the right ballpark. Ask around in local area military Facebook groups: "Does anyone know this property? Does this price seem right?"
- No tenant screening process. A professional landlord or management company will have an application and screening process. This typically includes a fee, often for running a credit and/or background check. Expect to provide information and possibly documentation about who you are and what income you have.
What You Can Do To Protect Yourself
- Research the property and owners. Look up the property ownership on public databases. If it is an individual, look for them on social media or do an internet search. Do the details make sense? If it is a company, look at its website, do an internet search, or look for its social media profiles.
- Use Google Maps street view. Look up the property on Google Maps, and see if the street view matches the pictures in the listing.
- Read the full lease. Make sure terms are clear and there aren't any blank spaces. Have the lease reviewed by your installation's legal office.
- Use safer payment choices. Cash, wire transfers and money orders are essentially untraceable. Electronic funds transfers and physical checks have limited protections. Never do anything that involves gift cards, Amazon codes, or other non-cash, cash-value tools.
- Visit the property. Think very carefully before signing a lease or sending a deposit without seeing the property or meeting the owner or property manager. I know it is hard when you are coming from a distance! There may be situations where this is fine. We have rented to families when they have not been able to view the property, and they had to trust that we were who we said we were, and that the property was as represented. If you can't visit in person, ask for a video walkthrough or see whether a local acquaintance can go look for you.
It's hard when you're PCSing and you need a place to put your family. Living in a hotel long term isn't always practical or financially possible. Securing a property before you arrive at your new location can help you feel a little more in control of the process, but getting scammed will make everything harder. Use these tips to avoid rental scams and be sure that your money is going to actual landlords.