COVID-19 pandemic leads to rise in rental scams

Cyril Josh Barker | 7/30/2020, midnight
With the COVID-19 pandemic creating uncertainty as eviction moratoriums come to an end, officials are warning renters about the uptick ...
Housing/apartment Bill Moore photo

With the COVID-19 pandemic creating uncertainty as eviction moratoriums come to an end, officials are warning renters about the uptick in rental scams targeted at New Yorkers desperately looking for affordable housing.

Reports indicate that scammers are masking in online classified websites like Craigslist showcasing apartments and rooms with unbelievable rents hoping people’s desperation outweighs their judgement. Some renters have been swindled out of thousands in some cases.

With the advent of online payment apps like Cash App, PayPal and Zelle, scammers are able to get money even faster without even seeing their victim. By the time the victim realizes they’ve been scammed, it’s too late.

Scammers often copy the listing’s photo and description and change the contact information with their own. Then they post the listing online offering low rent to attract more people. Many have been successful in their ruse and have gotten away with their victim’s rental deposit and first month’s rent.

According to Onerent, one of the nation’s largest small-residential rental managers, some 5.2 million people around the nation are victimized by fake rental listings. The company’s co-founder, Chuck Hattemer, said scammers are using the COVID-19 pandemic to keep victims from seeing properties that, in most cases, don’t even exist.

Onerent recently launched the website Scamlord.ai for apartment hunters to find out if an online listing is real or fake.

“Online scams are surging due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “Some scammers are claiming they’re a landlord who can’t do a showing because of social distancing. They’ll often ask you to wire money in advance. In this time of a global pandemic, being duped out of your money and finding yourself without a home is a cruel experience. For some victims, it could end in financial ruin.”

That wired money could total up to $6,000 in some cases, according to state numbers. Fake landlords will often ask for money to cover deposits, rent and other fees in order for a tenant to move-in that could total thousands. Some scammers are making off with tens of thousands of dollars scamming many victims from one apartment listing.

According to the City’s Department of Consumer Affairs, the rental listing scam is one of the top ten everyday scams happening in the city.

So, what’s the best way to avoid being scammed? The NYPD has a simple warning for apartment hunters: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

First, never give payment prior to viewing an apartment, don’t use money wire services or money apps as a form of payment, don’t complete an application giving out personal information before seeing a property and research the listing agent.

The NYPD urges anyone who believes they’ve been the victim of a rental scam to contact police. Renters should also report scams to the City’s Department of Consumer Affairs by going to nyc.gov/consumers.