Renters across the country are being duped into giving large sums of money to “landlords” who don’t own the properties they’re purporting to lease.
The scheme, sometimes referred to as a “fake landlord” scam, is particularly cruel given that the rental market in some major cities is insane right now. Sky-high prices and low vacancy rates have understandably driven some tenants to scoop up the best deals available to them, fast. And plenty of hopeful renters in Florida, Colorado, Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina, and Wisconsin have fallen victim to the grift.
Based on various accounts of people who fell for it, the fake landlord scam typically works like this: A person sees a too-good-to-be-true rental deal on a site like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or Zillow and contacts the seller, who then asks for lots of money, generally gives off plenty of weird vibes, and provides the tenants a way to access the home and move in.
The renter, however, soon discovers the hard truth: The property they thought they rented is owned and managed by an entirely different person, the “landlord” they dealt with was a fraud, and they’ll have to leave.
A couple in Aurora, Colorado, for example, told KMGH-TV, an ABC Denver affiliate, that they saw a listing for a home on Facebook Marketplace just last week and made the jump—particularly with the good monthly rate of $1,200. They contacted the potential “landlord,” who said that if they paid three months of rent up-front, they’d get two months of rent for free. That sounded like an even better deal, so the couple agreed, forked over $4,500 via CashApp and Bitcoin ATM, and prepared to move in.
Then, a day after they’d moved all their stuff into the new place, they discovered the locks on the home had been changed. The couple soon had to move into a hotel. A spokesperson for Meta said that while home listings are allowed to be posted on Marketplace, they have to comply with commerce policies, like all other for-sale products. The company has a number of tips for renters on red flags they can watch for and recommends that renters report any suspicious behavior from sellers.
KMGH, which did not name the fake “landlord,” said that a reporter reached out via phone and text and was given the same opportunity to move in ASAP.
The Aurora property is owned by FirstKey Homes, a large provider of single-family rentals. Another one of the company’s properties was apparently used for a separate fake-landlord scam across the country in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, just a few months back.
There, a single mother of four gave a “landlord” she found on Craigslist $2,800 to move into a FirstKey Homes property, and the company moved to evict her after it found she was living there illegally, according to WPEC, a CBS affiliate in West Palm Beach.
FirstKey Homes notes on its website that it never lists homes on Craigslist, among other tips on how to avoid scams.
“Stories of consumers falling victim to acts of rental fraud by criminals are heartbreaking to hear. To help educate consumers, we provide rental scam prevention information throughout our website, including every property description, on the dedicated protect yourself, online help center, and legal pages, in addition to providing a link to the FTC website that offers further deterrence tips,” Michael Torres, a spokesperson for FirstKey Homes, said in a statement. “We also place visible anti-rental scam information and collateral materials at each home—tags on Rently key boxes, counters, appliances, hallways, doors, etc.”
Another family in Memphis said they were thrilled to recently find a nice suburban home they could afford to rent on Zillow—they even signed the lease immediately and sent over $9,000, including a couple of months of rent up-front.
But a few days after they moved in, another group showed up and said they had been offered the same deal, according to WHBQ-TV, a Fox affiliate in Memphis. The family called the cops, and one family member contacted the fake “landlord” who’d duped them for answers.
“Sorry for the scam, next time be careful renting online,” the person said, according to WHBQ-TV.
Luckily, the home’s real owners allowed the family to stay until they could find a new place, according to WHBQ-TV.
Somewhat tragically, a major tip to avoid falling victim to these types of scams is to be wary of really, really good rent prices, according to Experian, the credit bureau. Also beware of listings riddled with grammatical and spelling errors, landlords who demand payment for tours or request money ahead of a person visiting the property, and sellers who say deposits have to be wired.
Zillow also recommends that renters be careful to check whether a listing is posted under different names on different websites, among other tips.
“Zillow strives to provide a safe online platform, which is why we go to great lengths to monitor activity and fully inform users of the existence of internet scams and how to protect themselves,” a Zillow spokesperson told VICE News. “Our teams use a number of different tools to proactively prevent inappropriate content from publishing, and if a listing is found to be fraudulent after it’s posted, our team takes steps to remove it from our site as quickly as possible.”