Good Internet hygiene is necessary for all you do on the Internet. Looking for real estate online is no exception.

Safety Precautions When Searching for Housing Online

Con artists, scammers, and criminals have one of the largest arenas to play in today
thanks to the easy access of the internet. While the internet offers consumers a
cornucopia of opportunities to find the perfect item or service, it has become a place for
the less-than-honest to prey upon trusting individuals. When you’re looking for a home to
rent, the internet is the logical place to begin the search. With the tap of a keyboard, it’s
easy to access multiple listings in specific neighborhoods and price ranges. However,
when searching for housing online it’s essential to take safety precautions.

Verify the Listing is Legitimate

One common online real estate scam is directed at potential renters — a great rental is
listed but it actually doesn’t exist. Much like you should do your due diligence and look
for potential physical issues with a residence for sale or for rent, it’s on buyers/renters to
research and see if the home is actually available. According to Realtor.com, the
“scammer ‘borrows’ the address and photos from a vacant home listing for sale and
creates a bogus home-for-rent ad online.” When the potential renter inquires about the
home, the scammer will communicate only by email, often making excuses that he/she is
out of the country on business long-term and needs a renter for the property. Realtor.com
states the scammer will ask that a deposit and rental payment be sent overseas to a P.O.
box. The scammer also make bogus arrangements regarding the property key or door
code to the renter.

Before any funds are deposited/transferred, always verify it is indeed a legitimate listing.
Use an online records search of the property address to find the owner’s name. The state
also may have a searchable online database for property ownership information listed by
county.

Protect Personal Information

Any time you’re online it’s important to protect personal information. Passwords can be
hacked, accounts accessed, and with just a few keystrokes a criminal has violated your
privacy and stolen money and/or identity. The best ways to protect personal information
when using the internet, especially when looking to rent a home, are:

  • Only visit reputable sites
  • Avoid clicking on site links via email. Instead, type the URL directly into a
    browser to help avoid phishing attempts
  • Update all operating systems regularly, don’t forget cell phone updates as well
  • Increase all browser security settings; a higher setting may be a bit more
    inconvenient, but it can help protect from spyware, hacks, and other issues
  • Install and actively use an antivirus and firewall protection program on any device
    used to access the internet

Following these basic internet usage precautions can make a difference when browsing
rental listings and filling out online applications.

Note: Many rental applications ask for a social security number. The landlord or rental
agency uses the social security number for background and credit checks. This is
common. However, if filling this information out online, never do it on a public computer
or even when using public Wi-Fi. Use a secure browser and if possible with the virtual
keyboard option available through reputable computer security software.

Recognize Common Scams

Protect yourself when searching for housing online by becoming familiar with common
real estate/rental scams. Be wary of the copy-and-paste scam. A scammer copies a
legitimate rental listing and then pastes it as a new listing but with a drastically reduced
price. This scam typically is aimed at people looking for a place when moving into a new
city and willing to send a deposit without seeing the rental in person. Once the money is
sent, the potential renter never hears from the “landlord” again.

Say no to requests for unusual transfers of funds (regarding deposits/first month rent).
This usually is a red flag that a scam is in process if asked to wire transfer the money.

If caught in an online housing scam, report to your local law enforcement agency, alert
the site where the ad was placed, and contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to file
a complaint.