ATLANTA — Rent prices are expected to continue to rise next year, according to the National Association of Realtors, and an increasingly competitive market can mean renters feel pressured to act quickly to land a deal.
"We are seeing a lot of tenants who are in very desperate situations looking for housing right now, and so they're falling victim to scams," Mara Block, senior attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid, said.
The situation creates a perfect opportunity for scammers.
"We've seen situations where these schemers have broken into properties that aren't theirs," Block explained. "[They will] hire a locksmith, change the locks, get keys, rent it out to someone else and the real owner comes back."
Not only do scammers take advantage of vacant properties, Block said, attempting to rent them as their own, but she's also seen legitimate listings repurposed as scams with devastating results.
One Gwinnett woman, who didn't want to go on camera, told 11Alive she paid around $1,500 through an app only to later learn the lister did not own the property. While she sought help from lawyers, experts said there is little recourse when dealing with anonymous online scammers.
Yet, Block said there are ways to protect yourself while navigating the housing market.
- Always visit the space in person. Block recommends turning on the lights or testing the stove to ensure everything is in working condition.
- Verify the identity of the lister. It's perfectly acceptable to ask for a driver's license or another form of ID.
- Read a contract before you sign, and make sure you understand all the documents. If someone is trying to pressure or rush you, Block said that could be a sign something is wrong.
- Cross-reference the listing. If the home you're hoping to rent is listed for sale elsewhere, that's a red flag.
- Be wary of landlords who don't ask for a credit check upfront.
- Don't wire money or hand over cash before getting the keys and make sure they work.
"If you find yourself the target or victim of a rental scam, stop all contact immediately," the FBI states. "And if you have already sent money, it is extremely important to report any transfer of funds to your financial institution and file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center."
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