As summer heats up, so do rental scams

Idaho, Hawaii and California lead the nation in scams targeting prospective renters, a new report indicates

The summer months tend to heat up the rental market but victims of rental scams lose the most money in the summer (iStock)
The summer months tend to heat up the rental market but victims of rental scams lose the most money in the summer (iStock)

Across the country, the summer months tend to be the busiest for renters. The weather is generally milder and more predictable, children are out of school and new graduates are entering the workforce for the first time.

But amid the hustle for moving trucks and wardrobe boxes, scammers enter a busy season of their own.

Although most rental scams are reported in January, victims lose the most money during the summer, according to a new report from Apartment Guide.

Analyzing data from the Better Business Bureau’s national rental scam tracker from 2016 to 2020, the report found that in the past six years, victims lost the most money in May, followed by June and August.

The federal government defines rental scams as incidents in which property owners or potential tenants misrepresent themselves, or misrepresent the terms and availability of a rental. Some fraudsters create fake rental ads on websites like Craigslist by repurposing existing, legitimate listings, then pocket the money intended for a security deposit or broker fee and vanish.

Last year, a scammer rented out a South Hampton townhouse without permission and made off with more than $13,000 from the prospective tenant.

Not all fraudsters walk away with thousands in ill-gotten gains. Of the 1,889 scams that Apartment Guide analyzed over the past 6 years, the median loss reported by victims was $640.

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But the problem appears to be worsening. Beyond those reported to the Better Business Bureau, the number of rental scam victims nationwide jumped 17 percent last year, according to FBI data.

On a per-capita basis, Idaho has led the nation in rental scams since 2016, followed by Hawaii, California, Colorado and Oregon. Three of these states — Idaho, Colorado and Oregon — have experienced significant population increases in recent years, driving up housing demand and average rents. Boise ranked second among all U.S. cities in rental scams per capita, trailing only Los Angeles.

Fake lookalike rental listings tend to be the most common tactic for Idaho scammers, according to local authorities, who warned renters about an uptick in the criminal tactic last year.

Scammers have attempted to capitalize on market conditions by relisting legitimate rental properties on Craigslist at unusually low prices, then encouraging digital payments through services such as Venmo or PayPal. One victim lost $2,400 to such a scheme, according to the state attorney general.

After Los Angeles and Boise, San Francisco ranked third for the most rental scams per capita. Tied for fourth were Phoenix and San Diego, and tied for fifth were Columbus and New York City.

California, which has three of the top five cities with the most rental scams, had four times as many reported scams as any other state.