Use these simple steps to catch an apartment scam
I am currently in the middle of apartment hunting and have already reported an apartment scam in Barcelona within the first couple of few weeks. A scammer attempted to rush me to sign without seeing an apartment also in New York. I have also learnt bitter lessons in London and Malta in the past, so I look out for common red flags. As I have experienced apartment scams first hand, but have also busted more than I can count, I want to help you by sharing my tricks to avoid these criminals.
Apartment scams occur incredibly frequently around the world, especially in the big cities. I have encountered dozens of fraud attempts of criminals in different countries, who try to exploit our vulnerability and desperation. Anyone desperate enough looking for a home is an easy target, and there are large sums of money involved in house deposits and “taking-off-the-market” fees. These high fees make an apartment scam a profitable business for a criminal gang.
However, I have a few digital tricks up my sleeve, which can help you find out if an advert is potentially an apartment scam.
I’m going to show you how to bust an apartment scam with these simple steps
- When you are approached by someone posing as the owner or an agent, check if the photos of the rooms have been used anywhere online before, to check if this is a potential apartment scam. This process anyone can use online is called “reverse image”.
- If you use Google Chrome, simply right-click the image and select “Search Google for Image”. You will get Google’s search results of those websites where the image has been featured. For an alternative way to test the image, scroll down.
- If this doesn’t work, go to: https://tineye.com
- Download the picture of the room on your computer. If you have an URL (online link) of the picture, you can also use that to check if you are dealing with a potential apartment scam
- Upload the room picture on TinEye or paste the picture URL in the field
- If this picture is someone else’s picture and it has been downloaded by fraudsters to use in their fake apartment ad, you will get a list of all of those websites, where this image has featured. See the example below.
- If the picture has not been used anywhere online in the past, you will get zero results, like in the image below
- However, as there are billions of images floating around internet, TinEye can’t possibly list them all, so there is some room for error. Also, it takes a while for new pictures to be “crawled” by the internet bots, ie. recognised by these services.
- Before making up your mind, there’s one more check you can do online. If you are renting through a company, go to Trustpilot and paste the company’s website URL into the field. I have just cancelled a viewing of a dream apartment due to poor Trustpilot and Tripadvisor ratings. Other users had been kind enough to warn us, future customers, about deposit scams by the short term letting agency I was about to deal with.
- You should also search for other rental apartments in the area and see how much they are going for. If the price of your apartment is suspiciously low, you may have encountered an apartment scam. Have a look at RentIndicator, this site lists the average rents in the city of your interest. And what I like about this site is that you can check rent averages for a specific neighbourhood or the whole city. Apartment and room averages are listed separately. I have just learn through RentIndicator, that if I widen my search area by a kilometer or two, the average square meter price drops by almost 10 euros.
When should you look out for an apartment scam?
Your emotions can get in the way of reason, when you think you have just found your dream home. You may think you have to act fast to snap it off the market, before someone else finds it. The fraudsters tend to play the pressure card: you may be told that they have another applicant and they want the confirmation from you now. The risk of getting caught up in an apartment fraud increases, if you are moving to a new city or country and try to book a place before your arrival. Many of us have been raised in environments, where apartment scams unknown, and therefore we are completely unprepared to deal with these situations. Sometimes it doesn’t even occur to us that criminal gangs can be so professionally arranged and appear like real rental companies.
Examples of apartment scams
Using AirBnB or Housing Anywhere – how to keep safe
- If you contact a host through a platform like AirBnB or HousingAnywhere, make sure all communication is had over their platform. Don’t agree anything over the phone or your email. I’m a firm believer in these services and think they are great, as long as you follow their rules. After receiving your message, the fraudster makes an excuse to get your email address. The criminals do this to move the conversation away from the platform, which records every message that is sent. This way, there is a smaller chance for them to get caught. Next, they might try to get your address and ask you to send a payment. The fraudster I busted in Barcelona asked me to email them, as they “were at work and couldn’t speak”. Then over email, they asked for my name and address and claimed that the keys would be sent to me using a courier service. Before that, I would receive payment instructions via mail from the company. But in reality, they would fake a letter or an email and send it to the address provided by me, hoping that I would make a deposit payment onto their bank account. Never pay any fees without seeing the apartment, unless it is accommodation recommended by your university or your employer.
- When in doubt, contact the customer support before paying anything or giving away too much information
Craigslist scams, Gumtree scams and other forums
- Craigslist and Gumtree are full of fraudsters, as well as legitimate landlords. The scammers may ask you to transfer a deposit or “taking-off-the-market” fee via bank transfer, MoneyGram or Western Union. You may think it is safe to do, as the person who withdraws the money must have an ID in the name of the recipient you set. But the criminals wouldn’t suggest using these services, if they didn’t have a way to fake an ID fast. This is an incredibly typical apartment fraud so don’t fall for it.
- Buying a credit report scam: now this is an interesting one. I’m glad to be able to share insights with you as I work in digital marketing and understand this scam inside and out. In the credit report scam the “landlord” requires you to purchase a credit report that you have to pay for yourself. I work in affiliate marketing, which means that I know a lot about how people earn money online. If the landlord points you to a certain site to use to purchase the required credit report, this may mean that they do not have any intention of renting you anything. They have probably invented an imaginary apartment online and stolen the photos somewhere. The reason why they give you the particular website to purchase the credit report from is because they actually get commission for each client they refer to the credit report company. So how does this work in practice? It’s like in all digital affiliate marketing. The browser inserts a cookie into your browser when you first enter the credit report website. If you buy a credit report within the next three months or so, the cookie will recognise that you were first referred to their website by the fraudster, because you used their special link you never realised was there. After the sale, the credit report company will pay a commission to the fraudster’s bank account for referring a new client (you) to their business. The scammer earns a living by setting up this system that is typically used in a lot of digital marketing. It is very unfortunate that the credit score company does not know that the fraudster is not a real and honest marketing partner. They will not have a clue that they too are dealing with a professional scammer. And what is worst about this scam is that the fraudsters can automate each step. They can themselves actually be mountain climbing or deep sea diving but you receive automatically triggered and scheduled emails from them, prompting you to buy the credit score report and to send it to them. As a piece of advice, if you don’t think the landlord answered your specific questions, it can be a sign of an automised email chain. If you are asked to provide a credit report, you should be able to choose which ever credit report company you want. If they want you to provide a report from a particular company, they should still not dictate which website or link you should use to buy it. And finally, it would make more sense for the landlord to acquire this report themselves and to add this cost into their admin costs, as YOU could technically be frauding THEM by photoshopping the real report.
- It’s not uncommon to get offered free accommodation in exchange for sexual favours. This occurs frequently, especially if you are female and post your own ad with your picture, looking for an apartment. I have seen the strangest offers, trust me!
- If the apartment ad has many spelling mistakes or doesn’t have enough photos to show what each room looks like, this may be a red flag too.
Other apartment scams
- The person showing you the apartment may pose as an agent or the landlord. Their plan is to get a deposit off you and then disappear. This may be the current tenant or someone else with access to the key.
- Your landlord rents the apartment to two or more tenants at the same time. This is how the apartment scam works: they may ask the current tenant to leave the apartment for the day, as they are “performing maintenance work”. In fact, they are showing the apartment to the new tenants. I have been a victim of this apartment scam myself: the landlord didn’t expect the old tenant to return back to the apartment, so we were told to move in halfway through the month. The contract was signed to start on the 19th. However, the tenancy of the actual tenant would only run out at the end of the month. When the landlord got busted for having two renters in one apartment, he blamed us for moving in too soon – but in fact he collected the rent from two tenancy agreements.
- You should take inventory of the furniture, other household items and the shape of the apartment. If you rent a legitimate apartment and your landlord doesn’t suggest going through the apartment together, you should do it yourself. In this case, it is highly recommended that you take photos of every little scratch and fault in the apartment and list all of the household items on an excel sheet. Send them as email attachments to your landlord on the day you move in or before it, if you took good enough photos in the viewing. This way they are less able to fabricate reasons to keep your deposit. Personally I have been scammed around 400€ this way, as we did our inventory walking through the apartment. Luckily I had emailed photos of some faulty items to the landlord at the start of the contract, so he wasn’t able to charge me for those.
- “Bait and switch” scam: this is a scam where you respond to an apartment ad that seems almost too good to be true. The company seems legitimate, so you pay for the deposit. Before the move-in date, you get an email saying that the apartment is no longer available, and you are given other apartment options to choose from (these are less desirable options). Your request to get the deposit back is denied and as you are too close to the move-in date, you feel that your best option is to move in this other apartment and try to claim some money back later.
- You move in and later the actual owner of the house returns from a holiday. You have paid a deposit to a fraudster who stole the key or broke into the apartment while the owner was away.
- Landlord’s hacked email: the apartment ad may be real, but the landlord’s email account has been hacked. This type of fraud is difficult to detect. To keep safe, you should call the number and speak to a real person. Next, you should confirm everything on email. Keep cross-checking and if there are any suspicious signs, it may be wise to walk away. Often the real owner of the email account has no idea they have been hacked.
- Pay first payments through AirBnB -fraud: you may be redirected to a similar looking site created by fraudsters, but as it’s not AirBnB running it, your money will be lost
Next I will discuss some red flags that you may have not taken into account, so keep reading.
Apartment scam: look out for these red flags
- You are being rushed into making the decision. If it is a popular apartment, real agents will keep showing it to other people, until someone reserves it. So they shouldn’t have a reason to push you into a rash decision. However, some agents are eager to get the commission before another agent gets it, which makes it an unpleasant experience for the person viewing the apartment.
- They seem very eager to give the apartment to you. They may say that they have other people waiting but they think you seem reliable. Most landlords want to check your paperwork first, before signing the contract. This means credit checks, criminal checks or financial checks, such as work contracts or bank statements. If the landlord doesn’t want to perform these checks to ensure you are a good tenant, this is suspicious and a potential apartment scam.
- You are asked an unusually high deposit or an agency fee. They may just take the money and disappear.
- The landlord is unable to show you the property, as they are out of the country.
- You are told you don’t need a contract.
- The landlord or agency wants all of your information before the viewing.
You can look for more information on apartment scams by Googling the following phrases:
- Craigslist apartment rentals and scams
- Craigslist housing scams
- Craigslist rental homes and scams
- Craigslist homes for rent and scams
- AirBnB scams
- Gumtree scams
- Barcelona apartment scams
- Paris apartment scams
- Berlin apartment scams
- Rome apartment scams
- London apartment scams
*Update June 2017*
We have just blocked another apartment scam today. At least we are quite sure about it, and we are just waiting for a confirmation. We were shown an apartment that was being renovated. When it came to checking our papers, the agent sent us his email address on Whatsapp, so we can send the pictures of our passports, bank accounts and national insurance numbers over. But it was a Gmail address. Next I asked which company he is from and he told me that the apartment is being advertised through company X. I asked if I can have the official email address of the company X, as I cannot send confidential documents to Gmail addresses. His response was: “this is the email address that is being used”. So I replied: “great, I will visit your office tomorrow before noon, as I cannot send these documents to a Gmail”. I didn’t receive a message back.
Having done this, I sent another email to the company’s official address to see if this is a legal transaction I am considering to make, or am I being scammed. I will know more tomorrow… Don’t let your desperation to get in the way of securing your back – do your best to check the agent’s legitimacy, visit their office and speak with other staff members to check that everything you have been told matches with what they know.
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Check out these things to keep in mind, when apartment hunting in Barcelona. Although the article is written with Barcelona in mind, these guidelines apply in any city you are unfamiliar with.
Disclaimer: Please note that I am not a security professional or in any way related to law enforcement. Using these tips can give you an indication if the photos have been used in another context online, but does not guarantee what you see is not an apartment fraud. So please don’t make rash decisions. I am naturally unable to take any responsibility for your actions. If you fall for an apartment scam, don’t feel too ashamed to call the police. You should also inform the advertiser’s site or leave a review on Trustpilot or TripAdvisor.