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I'm in a situation where I will need to rent an apartment without the ability to see it or meet the landlord/sublessor first. This creates a trust issue that I'm not sure how to address.

Most postings require a security deposit to be made before moving in, which is understandable. Were I to end up not showing up, the lessor would have wasted time and lost the opportunity to make money by not renting the room out to another tenant. Some other worries from the lessor's perspective are also outlined in this question.

But as a potential lessee I feel uncomfortable transferring funds before I have house keys in hand. Housing scams are supposedly common on internet markets and the most common advice I see for avoiding them is to avoid wiring funds before meeting the lessor/seeing the room.

So the main question I have is, what is a protocol for paying a security deposit that is safe for both the lessor and lessee?

Is there a payment method that leaves enough of a trail that, should I be cheated, I would have a reasonable chance of getting my money back with help from my bank/law enforcement/the justice system?

Could an escrow service be used for this purpose?

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Have a video call with the person you'll be renting from in which they show you the property. Verify that they are who they say they are. Verify that the property is the property they claim it to be. Make your payment by check, not money order. If checks aren't a good option for you, they should be flexible about payment options such as wire transfer and the account to which you're transferring should match who you're talking to.

  • This won't guarantee the absolute absence of fraud, but it will weed out a huge proportion of scammers. They almost never want to actually talk to you and will come up with all sorts of reasons for not being able to communicate outside of email. They don't want their real identity tied to the scam so accepting payment in difficult to trace fashions is quite common. I've never asked for a money order from a renter. I've occasionally accepted wire transfers from international renters, but the wire was always to my actual account, not some numbered account or a corporate account, an account with my name on it.

  • Other signs of scams:

    1. They fixate on the payment of the security deposit, so much so that they ask for it before you sign a contract.
    2. They claim that there is some reason that things must be done quickly (before you have time to consider if it's a good idea).
    3. The price of the place is below the market average, this might be explained by some crazy story like that they are in urgent need of money or the legal status of the property is unusual.

Alternatively, you could rent from an established company that you contact first, such as a large apartment complex.

  • Note that most banks (at least in Europe) don't check the name on a wire transfer, they just transfer it to the given account number - so the account name the renter is given is not a good measure of how trustworthy it is. – Martin Bonner Jun 8 '18 at 13:30
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The Swiss have a perfect solution for this. Your rental deposit is placed in a special rental deposit account that belongs to you. What is special about it, is that the bank will only let you withdraw the money with the landlord's agreement or a court order. The landlord just gets a letter from the bank saying "m-chrzan has this account with this much in it". (I presume that if you refuse to pay for any damages, the landlord gets a court order and the bank hands the cash over.)

I'm assume you are not from Switzerland, or you wouldn't be asking (reminder: on an international site, you need to say where you are - the answer can be different in different locations). Given that, an escrow service is your best bet.

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