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Keep Your Wits about You to Avoid Rental Scams

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[Photo via Shutterstock]

A tight rental market can mean scammers trying to get their piece of the pie, too. The best rule of thumb for spotting a scam: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. These scams have gotten more sophisticated in the past several years: they include real addresses, pictures of San Francisco-style apartments, and even local landmarks. Most of the scams we've seen are for rentals listed a few hundred dollars below the market average -- not enough to make you think it's obviously a scam or at the very least, for an apartment outside SF, but low enough that any budget-conscious renter would at least send over an email. Here are some responses you may get if it is indeed a scam:

They ask if you can pay by cashier's check because they are out of the country/doing missionary work/in the military. The most recent one we saw shamefully claimed to be a member of the US military asking the writer to simply send the deposit via cashier's check and then he would send the keys. Delete and move on.

They ask you to fill out a credit check prior to seeing the apartment. This common scam puts your financial information at risk and could lead to identity theft. In general, don't click on links sent back through craigslist unless you can verify the site they'll lead to, for example, a link going to a photo album of the unit.

Let's say you get an email back that seems legit and you've set up some time to meet. The apartment is great but...

They ask you to give a deposit on the spot. It may seem tempting to do this if you think the apartment is a great deal, but we would caution against giving a deposit before a lease is signed, especially after this scam last year where a woman made off with six figures in fraudulent deposits. The person showing you the apartment may not even have the legal right to rent it, but they have access, some rental applications printed off the internet, and some serious chutzpah.

They offer a handshake agreement instead of a lease. While this gets you out of a pesky credit check, it puts your rights in jeopardy. It may mean you're renting from a master tenant who is trying to make money on the apartment, which means if he or she gets found out, you're on the street as well. Best to get everything in writing.

Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Keep in mind the golden rules of craigslist: deal locally, deal in person. And good luck out there!