You’re scrolling through the rental listings and you come across the perfect house.
It seems legit, especially if it’s on Zillow or Trulia.
The ad isn’t full of typos and the landlord seems like a real person because you Googled them and find out they actually live in the same town in which you are trying to rent.
You click on the ‘request a tour’ button.
They send you an application to fill out first.
You give them your social security number, driver’s license, phone number, email, current address, yearly income, and pretty much every piece of information they can use if they want to steal your identity.
The lack of awareness about cybersecurity makes many people an easy target for anyone trying to hack into their personal data.
An obvious sign of a rental scam is the owner asks for a deposit up front via Western Union Moneygram or prepaid Visa.
Don’t do that.
What if they don’t ask for money?
It can still be a scam because that person gathered all of your personal information.
If you’re new to the rental housing game, do your homework and beware of potential traps.
It’s easy to get sucked into someone’s plot when you are desperate to find a home.
Here are some tips to avoid rental scams used to defraud users, as well as recourse.
Do not fill out an application until you’ve actually seen the property.
Here’s a scenario.
You submit an application and email it to the person or supposed real estate agent on Zillow.
The landlord emails you back and asks if you can see the property on a certain day and time.
The next day, they email you again and inform you they have decided to rent the house to someone else.
You have just revealed your entire personal and financial history to someone who gave the house to another more “qualified candidate.”
You are left holding the bag.
They have removed the rental listing and changed the status of the property to “off market.”
Even if you verified the property exists, it doesn’t mean it’s really for rent.
People could already be living there, and unbeknownst to them, their house is being advertised as for rent.
It might not be a scam, but it might be.
Either way, all your information is in the hands of a stranger who could have ill intent.
The damage of identity theft sucks.
The tricky part is you don’t know if you’re identity is compromised until it’s too late.
Someone could open credit card accounts in your name, file a fraudulent tax return with your SSN, and claim your medical insurance benefits.
It make take years to fix.
Abuse of your personal information can seriously disrupt your life.
In 2015, a Tennessee woman found out her Social Security disability check – her only source of income – had been canceled because a thief had filed a tax return with her SSN.
The fake return led the Social Security Administration to think she had lied about being disabled, even though the IRS had confirmed she was a victim of identity theft.
Another way credit cards get compromised is through a company’s database.
For example, in 2013, 40 million credit and debit card accounts were compromised when hackers gained access to Target’s database.
What do you do next?
If you think you’ve been a victim of fraud or identity theft, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
In 2015, the FTC reported more than 490,000 in identity theft complaints.
Every year, the threat continues to grow as advancements in technology uncover vulnerabilities that could allow fraudsters to get your personal information.
Report the ad to whichever online real estate database company you’re using, such as Zillow or Trulia.
Give them as much information as you can about the property, what happened, and include the email exchanges.
The company is supposed to follow up even if they bear no responsibility and make it clear on their website that they are not involved in the transactions between buyers/sellers, renters/landlord, or borrowers/lenders.
They simply tell you to beware of scams and other internet fraud on a Frequently Asked Questions page.
You can freeze your credit for free and up to three months to prevent someone from opening accounts in your name.
It’s easy to do.
To place a fraud alert on your credit reports, contact fraud.transunion.com, which are then forwarded to Equifax and Experian.
By law, you are also allowed to get one free credit report a year.
Look for sudden or unexpected changes in your free credit report summary, which is updated every month on credit.com.
Do your research and trust your gut for the legitimacy of potential listings.
Some apartment complexes will offer legitimate applications via a property’s website, but don’t submit an application with personal information until you’ve verified the property exists and you’ve toured it.
The photos online may not match reality.
Don’t get your identity stolen and taken for a ride.
Common cyber crime is more widespread than the occasional or sensational headlines suggest.
Cyber criminals aren’t masterminds or experts, but they can easily victimize people who shop, bank, or send money online.
RISE NEWS is a grassroots journalism news organization that is working to change the way young people become informed and engaged in the world. You can write for us.
Cover Photo Credit: Michael Dorausch/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)