How to protect yourself from online rental scams

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Alyssa Tapper spotted an apartment online that seemed perfect.

“It couldn’t have been better,” said Tapper, who’s a WPRI 12 employee.

The apartment was in a good neighborhood. It had three bedrooms, and all utilities were included. So Tapper reached out to the person who posted the ad.

“We went back and forth, probably 20 text messages,” Tapper told Call 12 for Action.

Almost immediately she noticed red flags.

“He had said in order to hold the apartment, to have nobody else look at it, I had to pay a deposit,” Tapper recalled.

The person on the other end of the text messages also told Tapper she couldn’t see the apartment because he was “out of town.”

Tapper said she searched the address and tracked down the real landlord who told her the place of her dreams was already occupied, and that the listing was a fake.

“It’s very common,” said Martha Crippen, of the R.I. Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Unit.

Crippen said scammers often use real addresses and photos that they snagged from real listings to try to steal money from potential renters.

“I have had a couple of consumers who have fallen victim to a rental scam,” she added.

But Crippen said there are simple ways to protect your money.

“You never want to rent an apartment, sight unseen,” she told Call 12 for Action. “And payment should be made with your credit card. Most of the scam artists are going to ask you for an alternate payment.”

Tapper’s intuition and a little research saved her the money she’ll need when she does find the perfect place.

“Thank goodness that I didn’t go and spend $1,000!” she said.

If you believe you’ve encountered a rental scam, report it to your local police department, as well as the FTC.

Susan Campbell (scampbell@wpri.com) is the Call 12 for Action and Target 12 consumer investigator for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.