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Here are seven tips to avoid being victimized by "Rental Scams"

I recently came across a local news story where a family lost $3,300 in a rental home scam within our county. Sadly, this isn't an isolated incident but rather a growing problem in our society. Housing scams surged by nearly 300% in 2022, and this trend continues to escalate. With a competitive rental market due to factors like rising interest rates and limited supply, scammers are preying on families searching for housing.

While there's no foolproof method to guarantee you won't fall victim to a rental scam, there are some straightforward steps you can follow to significantly lower the risk if you remain vigilant and observant.

1. Insist on an in-person home tour. Scammers often dodge this request and prefer to receive money upfront. If this happens, consider it a red flag. When scheduling an in-person tour, avoid going alone or carrying cash. Instead, offer to bring or obtain a cashier's check for added safety against potential threats or criminal activities.

2. If the rent seems unrealistically low, it probably is. In today's competitive rental market, property owners understand the value of their homes. If you come across an exceptionally cheap rental, investigate it further for legitimacy. Never fall for the "fear of loss" sales tactic and send money to secure a property before touring it. Regardless of the attractive price, avoid sending any funds until you've seen the rental home in person.

3. Check property owner information in tax records, which are typically available online. Gather the name of the person you're dealing with and cross-reference it with the property tax records (use agencies like the Property Valuation Administration in Kentucky or the Auditor in Ohio). If the property is under a limited liability company (LLC), take the next step to research the business owner through the secretary of state's website. Keep in mind that this may not always align, especially with management companies or leasing agents, as discussed in tip number four.

4. When dealing with a management company or leasing agent, verify their credentials. All leasing agents and management firms must hold a valid real estate license to legally lease properties they don't own. Request their name and license number, and use the respective state real estate commission websites (such as the Kentucky Real Estate Commission or the Ohio Real Estate Commission) to verify their status. If they lack ownership or licensing, exercise caution as it raises the likelihood of a potential scam or illegal rental activity.

5. If the listing lacks specifics, conduct further investigation. While not every property owner provides extensive details, you should expect some basic information. If the listing is as vague as "house for rent," ask for more details, such as the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, and the condition of the basement. The key is to seek information that only someone familiar with the property would possess. Avoid questions easily found online, like school districts or bus routes, and focus on details that require firsthand knowledge of the property.

6. No tenant screening process is a warning sign. If you're offered a rental without being asked to fill out an application, consider it a major red flag. Even small private landlords typically use screening services because eviction costs and lost rent are rising concerns. If someone is willing to rent without screening, there's an increased risk that they don't own the property and may be attempting to scam you for your money.

7. Immediate move-in requests should raise suspicion. If someone skips the screening process and rushes you into the property, it's likely they're in a hurry because they don't own the home and may be attempting to scam you.

While there's no foolproof way to avoid scams, following these tips can significantly reduce the risk. If you suspect a scam, report it immediately to local law enforcement. Additionally, take a screenshot of the ad in case it's removed. After reporting it to law enforcement, inform the website where you found the ad, so they can investigate and remove it to prevent others from falling victim.

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