New Year, New Apartment, Same Old Scams

The New Year has started and many people are still holding to their resolutions. Besides the usual suspects of exercising more and quitting smoking, some might have planned on finding a new apartment. Unfortunately, this also means a rise in prepaid rental ad scams. So be cautious while you’re searching for a new home.

The prepaid rental scam advertisements can be encountered on nearly any platform and in most countries. The ads often look very professional; some are even copies of real ads from legitimate sources. We have seen them on established apartment rental sites, online notice boards, B&B agency sites, and even in the classified ads section of newspapers. The website owners try their best to spot false advertisements and delete them as fast as possible, but there is always a chance that there is a new ad that hasn’t been removed yet.

The scam is pretty simple. Once the victim shows interest in the apartment the alleged landlord informs the victim that he is currently traveling and will not be able to show the apartment in person, but will send the keys after a security deposit has been made. This is a classical advance payment scam. The money is often requested through services other than regular bank wire transfers. After the victim sends the money, the scammer disappears with the deposit and is never heard from again. The key to the apartment is never sent, and the apartment may never have actually existed. Although some scammers made the effort of sending a real key that didn’t work on the apartment to the victim. The attacker may do this to buy some time to erase his tracks until the victim realizes the key does not work on the apartment.  

Some scammers also use the false pretense of a background check to gather personal information or passport photos of the victim, which can then be used to steal the victim’s identity.

Similar scams can happen in the other direction as well, often with rentals for vacation apartments. In those cases, the scammer pretends to be an interested renter instead of the landlord. Once all the details have been agreed on, the scammer will ask for the bank details in order to proceed with the wire transfer. The trick is that the scammer will transfer more money than the agreed sum to the landlord. This money does not come from the scammer’s bank account, but is instead stolen from an online banking account that has been hijacked by a financial Trojan. After the transfer has been credited, the landlord is contacted and asked to send the excess money back to the now allegedly traveling scammer through other means. A few days later, the landlord will be informed by the bank that the money was stolen and he will have to pay it back, since he served as a money mule.

So no matter if you are renting or leasing, you should always be vigilant and try to follow a few rules even if it can be difficult to verify the details.

  • Don’t pay any money in advance if you haven’t seen the apartment or met your contact.
  • If you can’t see the apartment or meet your contact, use a trusted escrow service.
  • Be cautious when sending money to a different address or through unusual financial services.
  • Do not rush the transaction or feel pressured. If the other party is too eager to sell, something might be wrong.
  • Money from a false transaction should only be sent back to the original account that it came from.
  • Search online for the email address or the advertisement text. Others may have already reported it as a scam.