Recognizing a Roommate Scam

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The process of finding a new roommate, whether it's to fill a vacant room in your house or finding a new place to call home, can be stressful. When you add in the dangers of being scammed by someone, the stress quotient increases. Learn how to recognize a roommate scam by familiarizing yourself with potential fraudulent situations and warning signs, such as being required to make an upfront payment for a room you haven’t seen or being told you don't have to sign a lease.

Scams When Searching for a Roommate

When you're desperate to find a new place to call home, it's easy to overlook situations ripe for fraud. One potential scam occurs when you search for a new home online. When you find a listing with beautiful photos and too-good-to-be-true rent and then contact the person who listed it, the scam begins. In some cases, the property doesn't even exist; the photos and details are fake. In other cases, there's no room available. The person who posted the ad might request a deposit or an application fee -- even before you have seen the property -- and then disappear with your money. If you're sure the property and your potential room do exist, the other person might be fishing for private information to steal your identity, such as a Social Security Number and bank account information.

Scams When You're the Landlord

Just because you currently own or rent the property doesn't mean you're immune to roommate scams. One potential situation occurs when a would-be renter contacts you about a listing and wants to move in without having seen the property. She asks to send a check or money order, but when it comes through, the amount is much higher than expected. Admitting an error, the potential renter asks you to immediately send back the difference. When you cash the check, though, it bounces -- leaving you not only with a bounced check fee, but also missing the money you sent back.

The Warning Signs

When dealing with someone you have never met as a potential roommate, you have to ask a myriad questions and truly investigate the person's background to ensure they're on the up-and-up. Warning signs that this person might be trying to scam you include inquiring about a local room from another country; wanting you to wire money -- or have money wired to you -- or using cashier's checks, money orders or escrow services; and refusing to meet face-to-face before exchanging money or sensitive personal information. If you're viewing a property online, warning signs that the listing might be fake include a price that's simply too good to be true, vague answers to questions about the location or other roommates, saying you don't have to sign a lease and having to pay very large security deposits or up-front rent costs.

How to Protect Yourself

Before you hand over money, think twice about the situation. Don't hesitate to ask for references; if the other person refuses, take it as a red flag. If you haven't seen the property, set up an appointment and bring a friend along for safety. Ask specific questions, as it's easier to catch the person in a lie if they're not prepared to answer. Make sure that you have a legitimate lease and ask a property lawyer to look over it, if necessary. Although it can be necessary to submit to credit or background checks, meet the roommate or landlord in person first.