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How to avoid a rental scam

According to the D.C. Attorney General’s office

Chun photographer/Shutterstock

Sometimes the rent is too damn low.

In new consumer-protection tips, the D.C. Office of the Attorney General (OAG) is warning residents to beware of two common types of leasing scams: hijacked listings and phantom rentals. Often, these tricks entail below-market rents for sizable residences, complimentary utilities, and attractive perks like access to pools or private patios.

OAG says it created the guidance after recent national data indicated that more than 5 million renters in the U.S. have lost money because of rental fraud, and at least two-fifths of renters have come across fake listings. “Younger renters are more likely to experience rental fraud, with 9.1 percent of 18 to 29-year-old renters having lost money on a rental scam, compared to 6.4 percent of all renters,” according to real estate platform Apartment List.

Hijacked listings involve swindlers copying bona fide real estate advertisements—including addresses, descriptions, and photos—and reproducing such details with the swindlers’ contact information rather than that of the true owners. Phantom rentals involve swindlers attaching photos of real properties to the wrong or false addresses; the properties do not exist as advertised.

“Fraudsters are increasingly using fake listings to steal money and financial information from people who are on the hunt for great deals on long-term leases and short-term vacation rentals,” says OAG, which is headed by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, in a release. “Once they have your attention, they request money (such as an application fee) or financial information for the property they cannot deliver.”

To protect themselves from getting hosed, OAG recommends that renters: verify that listings are priced similar to comparable properties in the area; research and visit properties before sending funds or signing papers; avoid properties where advertisers do not disclose addresses; and never wire money or use a prepaid card—these funds are hard to recover.

Residents who have been swindled by rental scams or suspect that they have encountered one can contact OAG’s Consumer Protection Division or file a complaint online.