OAKLAND, Calif. - Dozens of websites let you browse rental apartments and vacation homes with ease, but a new study shows a rampant increase of fake advertisement that have swindled five million renters in the United States out of money.
The study, released Tuesday by the Better Business Bureau, found that bogus listings were seen by 43% of people looking for long-term housing or vacation rentals.
The study shows fraudsters typically copied the photos and descriptions of a property and reposted them online with their own contact information. The ultimate goal is to get a security deposit or first month’s rent.
Communication typically happens through emails and text messages, making millennials -- people in their 20s and 30s -- much more likely victims, according to the study.
“When it happens to you it slaps you in the face,” said one millennial victim who asked not to be identified. “The people who are the scammers know that the housing market is competitive and so they know that there’s more leeway in terms of some of the red flags that you would normally catch.”
The BBB advises visiting the rental in person and getting a look both inside and out before agreeing to pay anything. It’s not enough to believe a rental sign outside or to trust anyone asking for money through wire transfer, prepaid card or gift cards.
“Once the money is sent the supposed landlord just disappears,” Attorney Colin Hector with the Federal Trade Commission said. “In fact, they may not even be in the country at all.”
The study found many of the scammers are linked to criminal gangs in Nigeria. However, with convincing contracts and lease paperwork, it can be increasingly difficult to spot the fake listings.
“The goal of the scammer is to get a victim’s money before they realize the truth,” Hector said.
The average loss is about $400 with one in three victims losing more than $1,000, the study shows.
Despite many platforms best efforts to weed out fraudulent ads, the report wants extra effort to be put forth to screen for them.
Additionally, for those who are renting their properties, the BBB encourages owners to watermark photos used in postings, which will make it more difficult for scammers to use them as their own.
If you’re a victim of a rental scam, a complaint should be filed with local police, the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission.