TAMPA, Fla. — With the end of the eviction moratorium and rising rents across the Tampa Bay area, we’re following concerns about potential scammers trying to take advantage of those in need of affordable housing.
“There are a lot of scammers you don't know who's legit and who's not,” Pinellas County resident Laurie Bailey told ABC Action News after looking for housing for eight months. “They want an application fee and that’s what they’re stealing. The application fee, it’s like $50 to $100 dollars.”
Sadly, the perfect storm for rental scammers is brewing: lack of affordable housing, rents rising more than 20%, and the end of the CDC’s eviction moratorium.
“With the desperation to move or looking for new housing. Of course, most people are going to turn to the internet. Internet it's a quick way, it's convenient, but it's also an opportunity for scammers to take advantage.” explained Anna Marie Millett, an investigator with Pinellas County Consumer Protection. “Typically what they're going to do is copy legitimate listings and post them for rent. They'll usually be below market value, whether it's for sale, or for rental.”
“The old adage if it's too good to be true, it sounds too good to be true, really applies here,” added Eric Olsen with Hillsborough’s Consumer Protection Services.
That’s exactly what Bailey is finding.
“More of the cheaper ones are the scam ones so I mean it's hard out there. I never in my life had this struggle,” she said.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, three immediate signs of a scam include:
- They want a security deposit or the first month's rent before signing a lease.
- They’re out of the country and can’t meet, but want your application fee.
- They’re asking you to wire money.
“There will be a request to transfer a deposit, give a landlord a deposit, and then they will mail you or leave you the keys to the to the apartment, and they're out of town or they're out of the country... so they can't meet you in person,” explained Robin Stover the deputy director of housing for Gulfcoast Legal Services.
Gulfcoast has taken 250 housing cases not including evictions since 2019 — a fraction of those are scams. However, they can’t help if the money can’t be traced.
“It's impossible for the persons out of the country, it cannot occur. So what you have to do is not fall victim to the idea of transferring money to someone unless you meet them face to face,” Stover said.
Renters are safest vetting the property before they even starting a conversation.
“As soon as you see the listing or find the listing that you're interested in, search that address, if you're seeing multiple listings for the same property that's usually a red flag it’s a scam. They've taken those photos, that information, changed the contact information,” Millet advised. “If you're seeing a listing that the same property is for sale and also for rent, that can be a red flag as well... Check through whatever county you're in the property records to see who actually owns the property.“
- Stay on protected rental sites
- Never pay deposits in gift cards
- If you’re out of town, your safest going with a real estate agent
“Go with a realtor or an organization that's established where you can go and talk to someone, rather than doing business online,” Olsen said.
Bailey is still looking for a home she can afford but is grateful she hasn’t become a victim.
“I didn't lose any money that way, but I could have. I could have lost a lot of money,” she said.
If you’re unsure about a listing, you can call your county’s consumer affairs office for advice. They can check to see if the company has been reported before.
If you find yourself in a rental scam, report it to your local law enforcement and to the Federal Trade Commission. You should also contact the website where the ad was posted.