2009-07-24 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

Commentary By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

AUDREY PHEFFER AUDREY PHEFFER With these tough economic times, more people are opting to rent a house or apartment rather than purchase their own home. Increasingly, renters are using websites such as Craigslist to find their next abode. Craigslist and similar sites are free and easy to use. They allow the people seeking goods and services to connect with those who can provide them. This can be particularly useful if you are moving from city to city or state to state. However, one must be careful, as these tough economic times have also seen an increase in online rental scams.

Here's how one scam works: the scammers create an online rental listing for a property they do not own or they find a listing, substitute their own information, and post it on a different website. They lure in prospective renters by offering low monthly rent and may even include photos of the rental property. To the renter, all of this seems legitimate. Fortunately, there are number of steps you can take to protect yourself.

First, do not wire money to anyone offering a rental property. This is one of the surest signs that the rental listing is a scam. Wiring money is like sending cash—once you send it, you have no way to get it back. There is no need to wire money to pay a security deposit, application fee, or first month's rent. If they refuse to take a check, walk away from the deal.

Second, do not send any payment before you have signed a lease or seen the property. If you cannot go and see it yourself, ask someone you trust to go for you and confirm that the property is for rent. You or your representative should insist upon seeing the inside of the rental unit, since some scammers will simply show you the outside of a building they do not own. Be sure to do an online search for the rental listing; if you find the same property listed under a different name, it may be a scam.

Third, be wary if the owners say they are out of the country, but will get you the keys through a third party. In some cases, the scammers have even created fake keys. Do not send money overseas for a rental unit, especially if they want it before you have signed the lease or seen the apartment.

If you believe you have been scammed, contact your local law enforcement agency and the Federal Trade Commission. In addition, you should contact the website where you found the ad. Finally, if the scammers were able to obtain personal information about you, be sure to check your bank, credit card, and credit report statements for purchases that are not yours.

For more information, you can contact the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877- FTC-HELP (1-877- 382-4357); TTY: 1- 866-653-4261. There is also information available on rental scams at the website of the National Association of Realtors at www.realtor.org.

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