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I have noticed in my area there are a ton of people advertising rooms for rent, where someone owns a large 3 or 4 bedroom home and is trying to rent the rooms out.

These are usually advertised at $500-600 per month, which seems very attractive, as I currently rent a single bedroom 'luxury' apartment for $1200/month (Only place I could find after moving to Houston after the hurricane).

I started contacting someone at one of these ads, and we started talking, and met.

He didn't give me the address of the place, at the time that we were to meet to go view it. Instead, he asked me to meet him at a different, public place near by, and then had me follow him back to the house.

This on it's own wasn't very suspicious, but adds to a lot of other behavior that has me re-thinking this situation.


I looked at the house, it was alright, we talked a bit, and I decided to 'apply' for the room. The person had me fill out an 'application' that looked like a generic apartment application that had been retrieved from the web.

It had quite a bit of detailed information being asked for on it....

  • List of financial institutions
  • Account number for bank (I felt a bit suspicious about this but figured maybe they're asking in case I default or for a background check?)
  • 3 months of paystubs
  • SSN
  • Date of birth
  • Emergency contact info
  • Address History for past few years

Anyways, I fill this out and give the guy $75 for this 'background check'.

Afterwards, he asks me to fill out this Transunion Smart-move thing, which is more or less a system that's designed to check someone's credit and background without requiring a tenant to give a random person their personal information.

At this point, I don't even know the guy's last name. Just the first name. I get kind of annoyed that I've just given all of my personal information out to a stranger and I ask for their last name so I can add them as a contact in my phone.


I go through all of that, and a few days later, he asks me to meet him to pay the deposit. Here's where I'm fairly concerned - He asked me to pay him the deposit in a money order, and to leave the money order fields blank.

This seems like a bit of a red flag to me. He'd previously—while we were talking—told me he'd want the deposit and rent paid with a money order, which I thought was a bit odd, but asking for me to give him what sounds like would more or less be a blank check seems weird.

I don't have any kind of 'lease' or agreement signed from this person, and don't have any contact information on him other than a name and a phone number.

I tried running a reverse phone lookup on the number, and it says it's a VOIP phone with no name listed.

I went on Google maps / timeline to find out what address we'd driven to after I met him at that public place, and then did a reverse address on whitepages for it and the name associated with that house is very different than this person's name.

My question is, Is this some sort of very elaborate scam?

It seems like it, but I'm not sure how. Money orders can be traced to the recipient, can't they? This person hasn't told me where this money order should be going, but I have a feeling that if I give him a deposit without any sort of 'lease' or rental agremeent there's not really much that could be done to get it back if it turns out to be a scam.

Followup question - If this is a scam, or if I back out of it, what should I do about the fact that this person has all of my personal information?

  • Change my bank account number, which I included on the application?
  • Fraud alert with credit bureaus?
  • Should I get a police report?

Should I consider continuing to speak to this person to find out whether it's a scam or not? I've been thinking of asking him the next time we meet in person to give me some sort of ID or proof that he really does own that property, though I'm sure that would seem like a weird thing for a potential tenant to ask.

Need some guidance here.

7
  • Maybe he's sub-leasing a room? Did it look/feel like he lived there? Most of it sounds like someone new to renting being cautious/fumbling through it, like getting your info for a background check before learning that it's easier to use SmartMove. However, the bank accounts and money order things are concerning. Definitely curious, usually deposit is due at lease signing, does the lease seem to be in order?
    – Hart CO
    Jan 16 '18 at 22:31
  • @HartCO He legitimately hasn't mentioned a lease the entire time, but has asked me to pay a deposit within a fairly short time frame (Move in date is 6 weeks out). Couldn't really tell if he lived there or not. The place had furniture and everything but was REALLY clean... It's entirely possible that someone moved it all in for a scam.
    – schizoid04
    Jan 16 '18 at 22:34
  • @Grade'Eh'Bacon I did see it in person, the place definitely exists. Though I'm not sure if this person actually has the right to rent it out... someone could easily break into an abandoned house and pretend it's theirs...
    – schizoid04
    Jan 16 '18 at 22:35
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    Most US counties have a public real estate tax database that may list the owner's name. See if yours does, and if the owner name of this address is the name of the person you are dealing with. Also, the deposit is consideration for a contract: ask for the contract in writing before tendering deposit (whether the deposit is contractually for the lease or just the option to lease), which should give you your counterparty's name and a paper trail, even if it's fraud.
    – user662852
    Jan 17 '18 at 15:57
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    @user662852 Even better, ask the lease be signed in front of a notary. That way identity of the landlord will be verified and OP will have a traceable record.
    – ventsyv
    Jan 17 '18 at 20:12
15

This looks very strongly like a scam. He got your SSN and bank account details even though he doesn't need it (you're wrong about it serving any purpose if you default or for background check purposes).

  1. He is taking a deposit without a signed lease. Think about this - you are giving someone money, with no agreement in place as to what the money will be used for, under what conditions you get a refund, etc!
  2. You don't know the person's name! You have no way of verifying they are who they say they are. A contract (lease agreement) would spell out the two parties to the contract. That's likely another reason you don't have one - having to put a name (for responsible party/owner of the apartment would introduce more inconsistencies).
  3. He wants to be paid in an untraceable format. So, let's say you pay the rent that way. He claims you didn't pay and wants to evict you. Can you prove that you paid him? You didn't make out the money order to any name which means he could have someone else cash it (filling out the fields with their info). So even if you could get info on who did cash the money order, it would show that you did not pay him for anything rental related.
  4. Seeing the house doesn't matter. Unoccupied homes that have been staged for sale are perfect for scams like this. The scammer simply gains access to the lockbox by posing as a real estate agent or prospective buyer who then observes the agent entering the code to open the lockbox. Meeting you away from the home and leading you there just gives a lookout opportunity to report if an agent has shown up randomly for a showing. If they're good, they'll just pretend to be another agent who forgot to carry business cards if one happens to arrive while the two of you are there.

I would walk away, consider your $75 the cost of a lesson and keep an eye on your credit reports if you're not already doing so.

2
  • Why doesn't this answer include reporting the scammer to the authorities?
    – Bakuriu
    Jul 30 '19 at 19:13
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    @Bakuriu The goal of the question and this answer were not to enumerate what steps to take in response to being scammed. There are plenty of other resources available online. Here, the answer focuses on what traits were present here that are hallmarks of a scam. Presumably, once one identifies a scam, you are capable of taking appropriate action to either not get involved or alerting the relevant authorities as you deem necessary. Given the number of real estate scams that proliferate online, one is better served not engaging scammers at all versus spending all your time reporting them.
    – iheanyi
    Jul 30 '19 at 20:16
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Need some guidance here. Usually pretty good at spotting scams but this one's got me confused as it could very well just be a very 'cautious' property owner trying to rent a place, but the 'leave the money order blank' and no mention of a rental agreement and lack of contact information are making me very suspicious.

As discussed in comments, it would be difficult to say conclusively that it is a scam or the owner is afraid of getting scammed and hence being cautious.

The best in such situations is to walk away from the deal.

In this case you can check further to determine if this is a scam or not by;

  • Asking him for identification. There shouldn't be any issue showing the identification.
  • Asking him to show ownership of the place, be it utility bills or Lease agreement with the owner and permission to sub-lease
  • Ask him what other mode of payments will be accept other than Money Order [or cash]
  • Ask for a draft lease document so that you can read through and agree to give the deposit and sign the lease
  • Ask him for the address of the house / apartment again as you would like to visit it again before you sign the deal

If it is a scam should I Change my bank account number, which I included on the application?

Preferably yes. If it is a hassle, leave very less funds and move everything to new account.

Should I get a police report?

You can try. Generally since it cannot be conclusively be established that it is fraud and the amounts involved, police may not do anything much.

3

You ask this:

Is this some sort of very elaborate scam?

The answer is simple:

No, this is not elaborate. But yes, this is utterly a scam.

Without knowing any deep details you simply need to understand this basic rule of life when it comes to stuff like this:

If a situation feels unconformable and “scammy” to you, then it is something you need to avoid.

That is really the beginning, middle and end of this. A scammer needs a willing participant and if you subjugate yourself to their needs despite every “this feels wrong” instinct going off in your head, then you are helping the scammer scam you rather than helping yourself.

Reading what you have posted here are the red flags that show you know this without needing to ask anyone:

  • “Instead, he asked me to meet him at a different, public place near by, and then had me follow him back to the house.” This is almost understandable. Many people with concerns about public safety will ask to meet someone at a neutral location. That said, someone attempting to engage in a real estate transaction who is hiding details of the location should immediately be suspect.
  • “The person had me fill out an 'application' that looked like a generic apartment application that had been retrieved from the web.” If you feel the application is generic and it asks for tons of details, you should push back on it. The reality is in many legitimate real estate transactions details like this are par for the course. But honestly I have never heard of anything like this for a sub-lease where people are sharing the apartment. I would have simply stated, “You are asking for too many details for now. I like this place. What can we do to make this happen without these details.” In many legitimate transactions, person on the other side of this transaction will accommodate the request.
  • “At this point, I don't even know the guy's last name. Just the first name.” Massive red flag. If I told you I gave personal information to someone who I barely knew who only provided me with their first name you would tell me I am crazy, right?
  • “I tried running a reverse phone lookup on the number, and it says it's a VOIP phone with no name listed.” Another red flag. While many people use VOIP numbers as legitimate numbers, many use them as “burner” numbers that are easily untraceable and ultimately disposable. Many people engaged in real estate might have two numbers—one personal and one work—but they are often legitimate numbers that can easily be traced. A VOIP number on the top of the rest of this?
  • “He asked me to pay him the deposit in a money order, and to leave the money order fields blank.” Paying via a money order is not suspect. But leaving the fields blank? Really questionable. Why would someone whose last name you don’t know want a money order with the payee area blank?

And so on and so on.

But it still comes back to the statement I made at the outset: “If a situation feels unconformable and “scammy” to you, then it is something you need to avoid.”

Even if somehow this were all 100% legitimate, would you feel comfortable living in a place and paying rent to someone who behaves in such a manner? Would you actually be able to sleep each night feeling secure in such a situation? Remember, it might be better to pay $700-900 a month instead of $500-600 to simply have basic peace of mind.

Money is money. But peace of mind and comfort for your own well being are priceless. Always put yourself first and don’t ignore your own instincts.

2

Hmm, I can think of legitimate reasons for all of this.

Meet at a public place: Maybe he's just being cautious. If he's living in this house and is renting out a room, maybe he doesn't want to give out his address to any random person who contacts him. He figures he wants to at least meet the person first.

Generic application downloaded from Internet: I don't find that suspicious at all. If this is the only place he's putting up for rent, and especially if he's never rented out a room before, he likely has no idea what to ask on an application. So he downloads something from the Internet.

Smartmove: So maybe he had you fill out this application, and then when he tried to run a background check, he found there was an easier way. Again, I don't find that suspicious at all.

Don't know his last name: Did you ask for his last name? If so, did he refuse to give it? After you've filled out this detailed application, for him to refuse to even give you his full name would be entirely inappropriate. Maybe he's afraid of being scammed himself and is being very cautious. I'm tempted to say that a scammer could easily give a fake name rather than refusing to give any name, but scammers are often dumb about many things.

Wants a money order: Not suspicious at all. He could just be being cautious. It's easy to write someone a bad check. He likely isn't set up to take a credit card. So if he wants something that he is confident is good, that basically leaves cashier's check and money order.

Leave money order fields blank: Which fields? Any money order I've ever gotten, you have to give the bank (or whoever) the money, or they take it out of your account, and then the bank prints the amount of the money order on it. That's pretty much the point of a money order: an established institution has the money so the recipient knows that it is good. All that's left to fill in is the recipient's name and address. If he wants you to leave these blank, that's suspicious. Gets back to him not wanting to tell you his name. This could be an element of a scam. Or it could just be him being afraid to tell you his name for fear that you're going to scam him.

No lease agreement: I wouldn't be shocked if someone renting a room under very informal circumstances like this didn't think to write up a lease agreement. But if you proceed you should insist on some sort of written agreement. That would protect you from some scams, like someone taking your money and then denying he ever heard of you. Or, for that matter, from honest misunderstandings, like you thought the rent would be $X per month and the owner meant move in special $X for the first month but then more after that. Etc.

Name associated with the house don't match this person's name: That's certainly suspicious. As someone else on here mentioned, it's possible he found a house for rent, broke in one way or another, and now is pretending to be the owner to scam you. Maybe there's an innocent explanation. (Like, the house is really owned by a relative who lets him live there.) You could ask and see if he has a plausible story. If he gets mad and refuses to rent to you because you are "spying on him", fine, you're uneasy about all this anyway, right?

So my conclusion is that most of your red flags aren't really all that red ... but a couple of them are. Which leaves me in the position of being unable to offer any solid advice. There are a couple of suspicious things here that make me unwilling to say "no issue, go for it". But I don't think it's obviously a scam. It could just be someone unfamiliar with renting out a room trying to stumble through the process. I hate to say "ignore your worries" and have you end up getting scammed and blaming me, but I also hate to say "run away" and have you miss out on what could be a good opportunity.

In the end I guess I'd say, if the facts are ambiguous, go with your gut. If you're not sure, there are likely other potential places you can rent. You probably don't need this particular one.

0

I've been thinking of asking him the next time we meet in person to give me some sort of ID or proof that he really does own that property, though I'm sure that would seem like a weird thing for a potential tenant to ask.

Of course. That must be the normal way of renting a property. Both parties exchange their IDs, check for counterfeition, acquire photo-copies, sign a contract in writing which displays both parties' personal data, and the deposit is transferred at the time the contract is written/signed.

Precautions for the borrower

The borrower should protect themselves from scams by making triple-sure that the lender is the real owner of the house. Asking to see the original deed should be good, but it could be seen rude ("don't you trust me? do you think i am a scammer?").

I see that the OP mentioned the lock-box with a combination. I have never seen this. Usually keys are exchanged securely. If this is a consolidated habit in your territory, I must object that this must change.

One might also ask the neighbours about the identity of the landlord/lady. Or do a background check at Town Hall offices, asking who is the owner of the apartment. Even in the privacy-strictest jurisdictions, information on property is likely publicly accessible.

This doesn't prevent multiple lends, but as soon as the identity of the landperson is verified, the borrower(s) can sue them, despite being a long and expensive process covered by the property itself. Really, it shouldn't happen.

In general, RE agencies provide protection from scams. Their fee is repayed by their reputation. Then, one has to make triple sure that the agent really works for a qualified agency. Signing a contract at the RE agency, getting the keys and paying deposit on the spot is an excellent idea.

Precautions for the lender

The lender may also want to conduct background checks over the potential borrower, who could just decide to stop paying at some time, or destroy the property and be unable to repay it back (for lack of seizable value).

The number of personal data required by the borrower to the lender should be wide enough to conduct a thorough search, but must comply with privacy laws and not attempt at the lender's safety.

Disclaimer now: I am EU and of course laws and habits change. I learn that the US Social Security Number is somehow a secret, because by simply knowing it could be possible to impersonate the target. EU's national Tax Identification Numbers don't provide alone this capability, and the TIN is not that kind of confidential.

Asking for a credit report, for a work contract or the last payroll could be a solution. Of course, I learn that pulling a credit report immediately drops the credit score, which is just a disadvantage of the US credit system.

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