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Elliott Greenblott: Student housing shortage gives scammers an edge

Students in shared housing

Students looking for housing while attending college may be prime targets for scammers. Protect yourself by taking a few simple precautions.

Many college students are busy preparing for the start of the academic year. Part of that preparation includes decision making around housing.

While many schools offer on-campus dormitories, many do not and apartments may come at a premium. This is often true for schools located in small communities such as Williamstown, Middlebury, Vt., or Hanover, N.H., but the housing scarcity is also in larger communities such Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. The same can be true for schools in resort or vacation destinations such as Tampa or Orlando, Florida.

Scarcity or perceived scarcity of any type can result in panic reaction (remember the great toilet paper shortage of 2021?). The college housing shortage (scarcity) provides criminals with opportunities.

College housing scams are often developed through social media and targeting can be based on what students innocently post on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or WhatsApp to name a few. Comments about going to school or looking for an apartment open up the possibility of “Spear Phishing,” targeting potential victims based on personal profiles.

Here are a few of the possible housing scam techniques: Craigslist — criminals create fake profiles to attract students looking for roommates; newspaper or newsletter postings — ads are placed in publications that attract younger readers; Tear strips — bulletin board postings that seek roommates or offer apartments; emails, text messages, or pop-up ads using online profiles.

Avoiding these scams means developing a disciplined approach to apartment hunting. First, be aware of the “too good to be true” offer. Is the prospective roommate too perfect? Is the rental below the market price in the area? Is the rental apartment too nice (number of rooms, extras such as a sauna, fantastic residential area).

Next, carefully examine any paperwork before signing. Are you being asked to guarantee rent payment and for how long? Does the “fine print” make you responsible for the property condition? What are your responsibilities if your roommate leaves? What is your liability if there is damage done by your roommate or a guest?

Often, the person arranging for the rental will ask for money in advance to secure the apartment. Requests for payment by gift card should be viewed with suspicion. Payments should be traceable and using checks provides that feature.

There are also red flags when it comes to the landlord. Scammers often impersonate landlords while some others are simply unscrupulous. They post attractive photos and great rental prices that are lower than the rentals being paid in the area for similar properties.

The scammers frequently want advance payment prior to the renter being able to see or inspect the apartment, and meeting the landlord or a representative is not possible. In a number of cases, security deposits are required before even signing a lease.

Take some time to consider the overall rental process. Look for spelling or grammar errors in the posting. Serious landlords take their work at renting their property seriously and not do a sloppy job promoting it.

Likewise, a serious landlord will use some form of screening process. They will want assurance that you, as renter, can pay the rent and maintain the space. If there is no screening process, credit check or rental application form, you should be more than a little suspicious.

Finally, four steps before signing anything:

• Use your computer browser to research the landlord, the neighborhood, and community. Verify the property location using a computer application such as Google Earth or Maps to virtually view the property and neighborhood.

• Meet the landlord or property manager in person to check out personality and get a sense of his or her style. This also gives you an opportunity to determine the legitimacy of the offer.

• Conduct an in-person inspection of the property to determine the suitability of the space, upkeep and nature of other renters.

• Thoroughly review the paperwork before signing anything. Leases are legal documents requiring professional review. Low-cost services are available but any expense will be well worth the cost in the long run.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network. Questions, concerns? Contact egreenblott@aarp.org

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