How to Spot a Rental Scam

When it comes to shopping online, it can be hard to know if you are getting an honest and reputable experience. Finding an apartment is no different.

In general, the intention of rental scams are to accomplish one or both of the following:

  1. Fraudulently receive money through security deposits, application fees, etc.
  2. Steal your personally identifiable information, such as your social security number, date of birth, and prior addresses.

According to, “approximately 15 million United States residents have their identities fraudulently used each year with financial losses totaling upwards of $50 billion.” Also, through reports to the FBI we know that “nationwide, in 2021, 11,578 people reported losing $350,328,166 due to these types of [rental] scams which is a 64% increase from the previous year.” These are staggering numbers and demonstrate that no one is immune to being taken advantage of. Some of these scams are easy to spot, others however, might take a little more examination.

How to spot a fake advertisement:

The first big step for these scammers is to steal photos. They take photos from other for sale or rental listings and share them as their own. You may even notice that the photos have a watermark with contact information that does not match what is in the listing.

As mentioned previously, usually the intention is to steal your hard-earned money. When looking at a listing, pay close attention to the application fee amount, the security deposit amount, and how many months rent they are asking for. Scammers will often ask for things that are outside of the standard market recommendations, or even outside of the law. Application fees of $300, security deposits that are many months’ rent, or asking for 4 months rent in advance, are suspicious.

Another item to look for is excessive spelling and grammar errors. Anyone that has received a scam email (so, all of us) has seen this before. If it doesn’t read well then there is likely something off about the listing.

Image of person using a laptop - beware of rental scams.

Suspicious activity:

Spotting a fake ad is step number one. But what if the ad looks great? Below are a few other issues you may encounter that are suspicious.

  • Asking for funds to be sent in an atypical way. Never send money through a wire transfer or through payment apps such as PayPal or Venmo, to someone you don’t know. In the event that this is a scam, it can be very difficult to get your money back.
  • They get upset when you ask for more information about the property, neighborhood, etc. Not only is this behavior typical of a scam artist, but it also indicates that they are not familiar with the property.
  • You request to view the property, but they refuse to meet you there and/or suggest unusual methods of entry, such as crawling through windows, using less common doors (i.e. the basement, or a back door that is overgrown), not using keys, looking through windows, etc.

General tips:

We’ve covered the high points, however there is so much more you can do to protect yourself when shopping for a rental. Here are more general tips that may help:

  • Use reputable companies and websites, avoid sites like Craigslist, Facebook, etc.
  • Think: is it too good to be true? If it’s a massive, beautiful apartment, and the rent is far below market value for the area, it may just be too good to be true.
  • Search for the address online to see if it’s posted for sale, if there’s multiple ads with different amounts, etc.
  • Compare the information on the listing to the deeded owner. This is considered public information and can usually be found in a town’s Real Estate Commitment Book or through the Tax Assessor’s Office.
  • If the property owner is listed as a business, such as an LLC, research the business and look for a valid point of contact. If it’s a property management company, search for their direct number independently rather than calling the number on the advertisement.
  • Always see the property in person. If they are not willing to let you see the property, then it should be an immediate red flag.
  • Review all documents before signing and be willing to ask questions. A quality property owner or manager accepts questions and is willing to clarify any confusion. If the documents you received have exorbitant costs, do not have legal jargon or formatting, or generally do not make sense, then this may just be a scam.
  • Ask lots of questions! Nothing deters a scammer more than someone who asks a lot of questions. If they become agitated and forceful then it’s time to move on.

There are so many variations of rental scams out there, these are just the most common factors. For Mainers visit to learn more about your rights as a tenant. The best things you can do are be curious, ask questions, and use common sense. Overall, if it seems suspicious or too good to be true, it probably is.