Typically, every home search, whether for renting or buying, begins online. The Internet can provide a wealth of information for homeowners, but it can also be a place for scammers to target those searching for a home.

There are three common types of online scams. First, many scammers duplicate listings of homes that are available to rent or purchase but drastically reduce the price. Another type of scam is listing a home that doesn’t exist, leaving out images and addresses. Finally, some scammers even rent out homes they don’t own. These are homes where the real homeowner may not check on the property often.

It is important to know the signs of an online housing scam before you begin your preliminary research and start to visit properties. This way, you can avoid a dangerous and fraudulent situation before it’s too late.

How to spot a scam

Be on the lookout for the following signs. Any of them could be indicative of a scam and should require further investigation:

Listings without Images.

Every prospective homeowner wants to be able to view images of a home to determine if it is worth seeing in person. Look for listings that have images of the property included.

Listings without images should be a red flag. Search the property address to see if you can find images of the home elsewhere. This will also help you find out if the property actually exists and determine if the listing is possibly a duplicate.

Even if the listing includes images, conducting research on other websites outside of where the property is listed can help you verify that the images match up with the area. For example, does the listing include photos of a home with climate conditions that don’t match the area you’re searching?

Listings that are priced too low.

Compare the listing price to other properties in the area. Are they similar? If the property you’re looking at is priced lower than surrounding homes, it may be a sign that the price is too good to be true. Consider the amenities of the property for the listing price. Again, if the price seems too low, the listing could be a scam.

Listings that ask for money or private information before showing the property.

Is the property manager not willing to show the property or provide more information until he or she receives money or important financial information from you? If so, this could be indicative of a scam. Never pay in advance before seeing a home. You shouldn’t be required to give a credit check or provide payment until you’re absolutely sure that you’re ready to buy.

In addition, never fill out a rental application until you’ve seen the property. You don’t want to release personal information until you’ve visited the property and spoken with the person who has a legal right to rent or list the property.

How to protect yourself

Now that you know the signs of a potential scam, what else can you do to protect yourself?

  • Never wire money.
  • Research and compare prices.
  • Never leave a purchase untraceable. Scammers may ask you to pay in cash.
  • Research the contact information of the listing owner. Is this person in good standing, or has someone already filed a complaint?
  • Check for duplicate property listings.
  • If at any time during your property search you feel unsure, listen to your gut. If the listing seems too good to be true, it most likely is.
  • Verify the owner or landlord. Make sure the individual who is showing you the property is the right person.

How to report a scam

Flag the listing so other potential tenants or homeowners are aware. Contact your local authorities as well. You can also file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

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