While much of life is still ground to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people still find themselves relocating to new cities or needing to move for personal, financial or professional reasons. In fact, many people are moving for circumstances directly caused by the pandemic, such as a sudden job loss or a need to be closer to family. Finding a new home in the same or a different city is no small feat, even during the best of times. The coronavirus pandemic has added a new layer of complexity for renters.
As online listings became more common in recent years, rental scams rose accordingly. Scammers are seizing on the sudden drop in in-person viewings as an opportunity to dupe unsuspecting rental seekers. This trend has increased even more during the COVID pandemic. If you find yourself looking for a rental property during the coronavirus pandemic, you’ll have to be extra vigilant in your search.
Never sign a lease sight unseen
This is tried and true advice during non-pandemic times, but the fear of viral exposure is making some rental seekers less suspicious of landlords who won’t allow a pre-lease viewing, even a virtual tour. However, if a landlord refuses to let you see a property, this should be a major red flag — even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A common rental scam trap is to use pictures of an existing, legitimate listing as a lure to trick apartment seekers into transferring money for a deposit. When they show up at the property, there is no landlord or property manager there to give them the key, and that deposit money has disappeared into the ether. The property they saw online may not even exist at the stated address.
Always ask about no-contact viewings
A viewing is important to make sure the apartment or house is in a good, livable condition before committing to a lease. It’s also a reliable way to verify a landlord’s legitimacy. After all, a scam artist won’t have access to the actual property.
Most legitimate landlords have found ways to facilitate no-contact viewings. For instance, it’s become more common to install a lock-box with a key outside the apartment door, allowing rental seekers to do a self-guided tour. This allows adequate social distance.
There are also virtual tours, and if you do a virtual, remote tour make sure it is live! Do not rely upon some recorded tour online. You want to see the property manager/landlord open the rental unit in question, walk around, and show you all parts of the property. Be sure to ask questions, such as to zoom in if/when needed, open cabinets or closets, test the appliances such as to make sure the garbage disposal works, etc. Have the landlord/property owner zoom in so you can get a clear view.
If your prospective landlord hasn’t found a way to facilitate no-contact viewings and won’t allow you to see the property, then it may be a scam.
Low income renters can turn to non-profits or government programs
The COVID pandemic has made havoc on the economy. Many people are forced to move for financial reasons; either to a new place in their town or maybe a long distance. Very low income families can avoid scams by using a public housing authority (PHA), non-profit, or homeless prevention agency.
There are HUD section 8 housing units for low income families (or individuals). Another way to avoid a scam is to use a non-profit for advice, as multiple charities such as Mercy Housing, The Salvation Army, or Lutheran Services (among others) may offer assistance.
Beware of Craigslist
While Craigslist hosts many legitimate rental listings, the platform is unfortunately rife with scam artists. The number of scams during the pandemic has increased. The ease of use paired with lack of vetting makes it easy for anyone, anywhere in the world, to post false listings with the hope of tricking you into sending money for fake rentals. Scam artists may be located in a country halfway around the world and post the same scam on Craigslist in 50 different cities.
While you can still find some absolute gems through Craigslist, beware that this platform has more scams than some other sites. Don’t take this to mean that other popular rental sites like Facebook Marketplace and Apartments.com are free from scams — they simply have more legitimate properties. The same rules for detecting scams apply across all platforms.
If it’s too good to be true, it probably is
When searching for rental properties in a new city, view each listing with some skepticism. If an apartment is hundreds of dollars below the average market rate yet boasts luxury amenities, your alarm bells should be going off.
It’s not impossible to find solid apartments at a good price. Just keep in mind that you usually get what you pay for. Most apartments below standard market value usually have a catch, such as a lack of washer/dryer hook-up, higher noise levels, or older appliances. Make sure you know what the “catch” is before pursuing a property — it may be fine for your needs, but it may not. However, a luxury apartment at a bargain price is basically a unicorn. In other words, it’s a scam.
Be aware of other scams
There are an increasing number of scams as COVID has dragged on. But the fact is, there are scams year round – every day of the year. They target the elderly, undereducated, low income families, and others. Always be aware of them and look out for them.
Some of the more common scams are listed on our website. They can impact tenants and, in particular, senior citizens. There are scams around employment, housing, investing, and so much more. All of these have become more common during the pandemic. Read more on learn how to identify common scams.
If you can’t view a property in person, stick to reputable property management companies
It’s not always possible to arrange an in-person viewing prior to a move, particularly when moving a long distance. This has become even more complicated in the COVID-19 pandemic, since flying across the country for a pilot trip is pretty much out. If this is the case for you, you’ll want to avoid private landlords and stick to well-vetted, reputable property management companies, Real Estate Investment trusts, publicly held companies and apartment complexes. This will limit your options somewhat, but it’s a surefire way to avoid scams.
While hopefully we are closer to the end of this pandemic, The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made the apartment searching process any easier. Scam artists are capitalizing on the fear and confusion caused by the crisis to steal money from unsuspecting seekers. Arm yourself with skepticism and knowledge to protect your money and avoid being taken advantage of.