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Tips For Avoiding Rental Scams During COVID-19 Outbreak

Aerial view of Bozeman, 2008.
Jonesey/Flickr (CC-by-2.0)
Aerial view of Bozeman, 2008.

Rental scams in Montana and across the U.S. have been on the rise for years, but COVID-19’s slow-down of in-person property viewings and interactions with landlords may make it even harder for people to figure out what’s legitimate online.

Hannah Stiff, the Montana Director for the nonprofit organization Better Business Bureau, says COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, is affecting the housing market in a big way.

“From people looking to buy a home to people renting, a stranger probably does not want you in their home, so looking for an apartment is increasingly difficult for people,” Stiff says.

As more interactions and transactions move online, Stiff says rental scammers are more likely to rip people off. She says they may use social distancing as an excuse for not letting people see the property before asking for a deposit or personal financial information.

“In the wake of any sort of natural disaster, pandemic or chaotic event, scammers ramp up very quickly. They try to find ways to take advantage so rental properties are going to be no different,” Stiff says.

Last week, a woman from Bozeman named Anna (she asked that YPR didn’t use her last name) noticed a promising Craigslist posting for a rental home. It was in a good location, and the rent was cheap. The people who posted it said they were volunteering in New Jersey for a year and just needed a responsible person to take care of the house.

“I had this sort of like, it’s too good to be true feeling,” Anna says.

The couple asked Anna for a $500 deposit and said they would mail the keys to her. She asked to see the place first. They didn’t respond. Anna found out it was a scam when she went to the address listed on Craigslist and talked to the person who lived there.

Anna says looking for a new rental and moving during COVID-19 was already very stressful.

“The anxiety around all of that compounded by a scam was, for a moment, it felt like this is almost too much. But emotionally, I was like, this is where it stops,” Anna says.

She says she reported the scam to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. The center reported victims from January through October last year lost more than $37 million collectively.

Hannah Stiff with Better Business Bureau says the majority of people who encounter scam rental listings do not fall for them, but when victims do fall prey, one in three will lose more than $1,000. Stiff says most people think it will never happen to them, but scams can look very legitimate. She suggests four ways people can protect themselves.

“Number one: watch out for the deals that are too good, that deal that promises low rent, extra amenities, great location but doesn’t fit with the area,” Stiff says.

She recommends seeing what other rental properties in the neighborhood are going for and using Google Maps to confirm the address listed in the ad actually exists.

Number two, Stiff says look for the same listing in another city.

“See if you find that exact same address, that exact same phone number or that exact same email. That’s a big red flag that this is a scammer who’s plugging that exact information in and seeing who falls for the bait.”

Her third tip: see the place in person whenever possible.

“If it is a very extenuating circumstance like we’re going through right now with Coronavirus, see if there’s a way the landlord can walk you through that property,” Stiff says, adding that could look like a Skype call or Facetime.

Her fourth tip is to look out for any odd requests for payment or personal financial information before you have seen the property.

If you see a scam, Stiff says you should report it to Better Business Bureau’s scam tracker, the Internet Crime Complaint Center and Montana’s Office of Consumer Protection.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said in a press release Apr. 2 that the state received 17 complaints related to the novel coronavirus. Most were about price-gouging. Three were connected to cancellation policies.

Fox said to be on the lookout for phone calls, texts or emails saying that your loved one is in the hospital due to COVID-19 and cash needs to be sent right away. He said to also be wary of messages saying ‘your delivery of masks and equipment for coronavirus’ or ‘your coronavirus prescription’ is ready. If you get one of these calls, hang up immediately.

Fox offered the following consumer safety tips:

  • Scams can come in any format, including a text, social media message, phone call, voicemail, email, or even a television advertisement. Consider any communication from an unknown person to be suspicious. Don’t click on links from unknown sources, which could download malware onto your device.
  • It’s safest not to pick up from any phone number you don’t recognize. Let the caller leave a voicemail; decide later whether to respond.
  • If you answer and it’s a robocall, hang up immediately. Don’t press any numbers, even if the message promises to have you removed from their call list. Pressing numbers leads to more scam calls.
  • While it’s true that an economic stimulus check or direct deposit should be coming your way, it could be weeks before that money arrives. Ignore anyone who says they can get you that money sooner, whether through a grant or for a fee. They’re a scammer.
  • With people out of work nationwide, there will surely be an influx of “work-from-home scam” victims. Online “jobs” where you are asked to purchase and then mail products are scams. Any job where you accept a check and then are asked to send part of that check to someone else is scam. For help figuring out whether an online job is a scam, call the Office of Consumer Protection or visit the Federal Trade Commission’s page on work-from-home scams.
  • Ignore offers for vaccinations, oils, pills, potions, lotions, or lozenges that claim to prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19.
  • Rely only on trusted sources for COVID-19 information, such as the Montana Department of Justice, Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, and the Montana Coronavirus Task Force.
  • Fact check before sharing any information. For official information on the federal government’s response to COVID-19, go towww.coronavirus.gov.