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How To Avoid Scams During Every Dismal NYC Rental Search

Photo via Shutterstock.

Rental scams: in retrospect, they always seem obvious. And yet, they happen time and time again. We often dismiss the scammed as naïve, but the truth is that it can happen to anyone—if you're not careful. The city's growing population combined with limited affordable rental options mean that finding a home in the city—whether for just a few days or for a few years—has never been so treacherous.

There are many types of scams, and some are far more common than others. Here are some examples of things that can go wrong—and ways to keep your guard up.

· The most common and severe kind of scam—and what always makes the news—involves some sketchy person posting a listing on a site like Craigslist for an apartment that they aren't actually connected to in any way. One of the first ways of spotting something like this is to simply use common sense; Sara Gates, who penned an essay for the Huffington Post about her experience getting conned over an apartment, wrote that, "When something is too good to be true, it probably is." Does the apartment look like a palace that you can miraculously afford? If the price and the photos don't match up, there's your first sign that something might be fishy. Proceed with caution.

· When you start your correspondence with the "landlord" or whomever posted the listing, be wary of messages that you receive that seem a little off. In short, many scammers are not proficient speakers or writers of English, and their emails tend to be riddled with typos and grammatical errors. Curbed Atlanta editor Josh Green published some typo-riddled messages from his exchange with a scammer that he intentionally strung along—for the story, of course. "Owners of really nice properties probably don't write emails like fourth-grade Russian speed-typers," he concludes.

· Some examples of fun(ny) typos in the ads themselves: Kim Weisberg of Berkeleyside, an independent news site about the California city, lists "crayon moldings" and "laundry mat" that made her LOL while also raising her suspicions.

· Weisberg also posted on her blog two examples of real emails she's received from scammers. The emails serve to illustrate her point that many scammers claim to be living in faraway parts of the world. So they're supposedly unable to show the apartment in person and, perhaps, need money transfers to happen quickly. In both her cases, the scammers said they were in West Africa, with the former claiming to have won the bid for "petroleum land" and the latter claiming to be a television journalist covering a "story of African History" in Nigeria.

· This seems obvious, but be careful with your money. If someone asks you to wire money via Western Union or Moneygram, that's a red flag! If they ask you do so and you haven't even seen the apartment or signed the lease, another red flag!

· The thing is, even if you follow these instructions and otherwise do everything right, you still might be in danger of getting scammed. That's what happened to Sara (of the Huffington Post) and roughly 20 other apartment-seekers in 2014. In Sara's case, she even met with the "tenant," Kim, that she was supposed to be subletting from, signed a contract with her "landlord," Michael, and got working keys to the apartment. Only after doing some of her own research she realize that the listing was fake. In order to avoid falling into this trap, be sure to do everything you possibly can to confirm the legitimacy of the apartment and the listing. For Sara, this entailed researching Michael and Kim and asking around about them, which led her to realize they were not the apartment's actual tenant and landlord. After contacting the landlord, she learned that the apartment wasn't even for rent. In fact, the landlord told her that someone had already reported a sublease scam in the building.

· There are some less extreme variations on the rental scam; that is, they at least don't leave you homeless! For instance, apartment hunters may be charged unnecessary fees by brokers. If you see a listing without an address, a broker's way of implicitly claiming that only they can show you the place, there's your warning sign. The best way to avoid this trouble is to go directly to the management company that represents the building you're interested in.

· This goes back to the "too good to be true" warning: Listings will sometimes contain beautiful photos that boast truly breathtaking rentals, but when you email the contact, they'll say that the apartment is already taken and offer a much less impressive one. This is a bait-and-switch scam. The first apartment was likely never available in the first place, and its photos may have been pulled from the Internet in order to lure in unsuspecting apartment hunters. That said, the latter apartment may actually be available, but there's still no guarantee, especially considering the shady start to the correspondence.

Best of luck out there.
—Wesley Yiin
· All Renters Week 2015 coverage [Curbed]