Renters Beware: Online Scams Abound in L.A.

Fake landlords who advertise online are asking for money to submit an application, or just to see the property.

Photo by: George Rose/Getty Images News/Getty Images Los Angeles renters need to be extra careful these days, making sure they see the actual property they intend to rent, and waiting to deliver a check until keys and a signed contract are in hand.

“A two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in the best part of Brentwood for $900 per month? This is too good to be true,” thought Tiffany Muller, looking at the photos and the address online. “Maybe it’s just for one room in the apartment.” She decided to call the number listed and check it out.

The “landlord,” who had a foreign accent, told Muller he was from out of state and couldn’t show the apartment in person, but she could go and take a look at the outside, and if she liked what she saw, she could fill out an extensive application and send it to him with a $600 deposit, and in return he would send her the key so she could look inside. If she didn’t want to rent it, she could return the key and he would return the check.

“Oh sure!” Muller thought. “I wonder how many people fall for that and blithely give away their money and personal information?”

Tiffany Muller thought something was fishy when she saw a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in Brentwood advertised for rent at $900 per month. A little investigation revealed a ridiculous scam.

Several days later, Muller saw an ad for the same apartment, listed by a reputable agent, for a more believable $3,200 to $3,400 per month. Tiffany contacted the agent and told her about the scam, and the agent was stunned that someone had lifted her ad and used it for his own deceitful purposes.

The time and effort it would take to prosecute someone like that are hardly worth the effort, but it is worth mentioning to unsuspecting renters. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” says Muller.

Kevin Miller, President of Westside Rentals, has heard every scam in the book. His company is the largest home-finding system in California, covering from Santa Barbara to San Diego. He’s still hearing stories from people who were scammed in Hollywood by the guy who accepted deposits and contracts from a number of people for the same apartment – which he didn’t even represent.

Then there’s the old ‘bait and switch.’ “I can't show you the apartment you'll be renting because the tenants are still living there, but it’s exactly like this one we’re in now,” says the “rep,” who might have gotten illegal access to the apartment he’s showing, and not be involved in renting it at all.

“You can avoid this by always meeting with the landlord in person, and insisting on seeing the exact unit that you would be living in,” Miller advises.

He also suggests never handing over a check until the contract is signed by both parties, and the keys are in your possession. “Never pay a fee just to see a place or to apply,” he says. “If they ask you for a check in advance, that’s a definite red flag.”

Using a reputed company like Westside Rentals is a good way to avoid the shady types. On Miller’s site, landlords advertise their properties for free after being extensively vetted by Westside Rentals representatives. Renters then pay a fee to access the list of availabilities in their desired location. At $60 for 60 days, the fee is reasonable, and saves an infinite amount of time and trouble that could be wasted answering scam ads.

“Just exercise common sense,” Miller advises. “Don’t get too invested in something that feels suspicious. Even if it sounds like the ideal apartment in the perfect location, know that there is always another place out there for you. Right now, we have more than 12,000 listings available.”

With that many listings, there’s probably something even better just around the corner.


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