3 Red Flags in Military Housing Scams
When you’re facing a permanent change of station (PCS), one of your top concerns is most likely where you’ll be living. While many families chose to live in military housing, some prefer to use their military housing allowance off-post and explore their new city. While this can lead to exciting new experiences, it can also set you up to be the victim of rental housing scams, leaving you hundreds of dollars in the hole with no real rental property, or standing at the door of a still-occupied home with fake keys.
In the digital age, it’s easier than ever to access information remotely, with several great websites listing new rental properties on a daily basis. Unfortunately, professional scammers are skilled in creating falsified listings and techniques to get money to exchange hands before a property is occupied. Here are three red flags to look out for when preparing for your new home during a PCS.
Phantom homes or duplicated listings: Scammers often create and post ads on completed fabricated properties, using stock photos and images pulled from other listings to create a fake listing that looks great but could never be rented. They choose the best neighborhoods and catch victims’ attention with super-low rental rates or unbelievable deals. Many times these listings include false stories about owners who are on a mission trip, vacation, or overseas for an extended period of time, but will be eventually returning. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Scammers sometimes copy the information and photos from an attractive listing for a legitimate property and then make small changes – such as the contact information or physical address – to avoid detection from the original poster and to direct interested renters to communicate with the scammer. These scammers often post phone numbers with deactivated voicemails, so that a potential renter is forced to communicate solely through email. Be on the lookout for poorly written and grammatically incorrect emails as a red flag, and never exchange money via wire without seeing the property in person and signing a legal lease agreement (more on that below).
Landlords who want money before your lease begins (or wired money): While it is a common practice to ask for the first month’s rental or some sort of deposit, if you’re attempting to set this up with a landlord remotely, you face unique challenges. Check into using an online escrow company like Deposit Guard or Escrow.com to effectively hold the money until you have arrived and approved the transaction. This ensures to a legitimate landlord that you have the money and are willing to put it down, but without the risk of paying site unseen.
Similarly, wiring money for a down payment can pose specific problems, especially if you are working with someone you’ve never met in person. Unlike a check, wired money cannot be recovered. Do your best to avoid wiring money in a transaction. Make sure you have both signed a legal lease agreement before money exchanges hands, and do your best to see the property or have it reviewed in person by someone you trust.
Rental sites you’ve never seen in person: It can be very difficult to travel to your new post multiple times and check out the local rental landscape, especially if you’re moving a far distance or overseas. If you find a few great listings but just cannot make the trip yourself, consider hiring someone to be your scout. Oftentimes you can hire a local reputable realtor to go to the new location and check it out for you. You may have friends in the nearby area, or sometimes you can even get another military member on your new base or one of their family members to go see the potential locations and send you videos and photos. An in-person visit goes a long way in reducing your chances of being scammed.
If you’re moving overseas, you may be able to find a site like Expat Rental Scout to get you started on your housing search and to provide “eyes on the ground” in the new city. Be sure to use a reputable site and follow the safeguards listed above to protect yourself. If you do go to a potential rental location with someone you’ve never met before, be sure to put personal protection measures in place and try not to go alone.
It’s truly unfortunate that scammers would take advantage of our military members, who have dedicated their lives to serving and protecting our nation. The frequent relocations and the need to find new housing relatively quickly, however, make you an attractive target. With a few extra security measures and extra effort put into seeing the new home before money is exchange, you can protect yourself and your wallet from scammers.