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Online rental scams are everywhere, Tampa Bay. Here’s how to fact-check listings.

A comprehensive guide to sniff out swindlers.
The for rent sign in front of a home in the 1100 block of 8th Street N. on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
The for rent sign in front of a home in the 1100 block of 8th Street N. on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 4|Updated Aug. 4

Between inflation, rising rents and a sea of new residents flooding the market, finding a place to live around Tampa Bay is already hard enough.

Then there are the rental scams to worry about: Fake Zillow listings, swindlers lurking on Facebook housing groups, people pretending to own properties in order to scoop up application fees and more.

Local agencies like the Pinellas County Office of Consumer Protection are aware of this growing problem. Supervising investigator Jason Ohman said his office has found and removed 74 listings in Pinellas alone since April, and they know more are out there.

So what’s a renter to do?

Look out for red flags

With increased demand, there’s a lot of pressure on renters to move swiftly so they don’t miss out on a good deal. But it’s worth it to take the extra time to assess what’s being offered.

Often times, fraudulent posts will have poor grammar and multiple misspellings, accompanied by few pictures (or none at all). Ohman’s office has also noticed scams where the advertised rent seems significantly cheaper than similar properties in the neighborhood.

It’s a major red flag if a landlord or property owner is unable to meet in person to show off a property, especially if they say that they’re out of town.

And if someone wants you to pay an application fee before touring or meeting, walk away.

Background check the landlord and property

Facebook Marketplace can seem like a good place to find a sublet or a private landlord, but make sure to check out the profile of the person who is posting. If it seems like their profile was made recently or doesn’t have much on there, it’s probably fake.

It’s also not uncommon for scammers to pretend to own a property that isn’t theirs. To avoid this, run any rental you’re interested in through the local property appraiser’s website. Google the county name plus “property appraiser” and then search by address (you can also select your county on this website). The results page will show who actually owns the property. If the name of the landlord or listing agent doesn’t match the results, that’s not a great sign.

While you’re doing that digital digging, don’t forget to reverse image search the photos from the advertisement. Some fake listings are made using pictures from real ones in other cities. Upload the images to sites like tineye.com or Google Images.

A bit of in-person sleuthing can help, too. Ohman recommends driving by the property that you’re considering to make sure the address is consistent with what you’re seeing in the listing. It can help to chat with current tenants or neighbors while you’re in the area.

“Arm yourself with as much information as you can before you start paying folks and giving them your information,” he said.

Be careful sending anything

Don’t send money until you’ve thoroughly vetted the place using the steps listed above.

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When it comes to payment methods, Ohman recommends staying away from cash, prepaid cards or wiring money. If possible, use a credit card. That way if things go south, you can possibly reverse the charges.

He also urges shoppers to treat their personal information with as much caution as they would with money.

“Who are you providing your social security number and full information and address history to?” Ohman said. “That could lead to identity theft as well.”

Use a licensed Realtor

Ohman suggests hiring a professional to help navigate this murky rental market, especially for folks moving from out of town.

A real estate agent will know what’s in the MLS system, what’s actually for rent and if you’re getting a good price for the area, he said.

Just make sure that the agent is legit, too — they should be able to provide information about the brokerage they work for.

Report sketchy posts and people

Florida has state, regional and county offices dedicated to consumer protection, and they all accept reports. Don’t forget to file a report with law enforcement too.

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