Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz is asking residents to be on guard in light of a rash of apartment rental scams plaguing the city. According to a press release, Cymbrowitz described the common scam and provided tips to avoid being victimized by them.
The legion of scam artists perpetrating real estate rental scams are growing. Since January, 211 complaints have been filed in the state regarding apartment information vendors and shady real estate agent operators. Of those complaints, 121 were from New York City. Cymbrowitz described how the scam, which predominantly targets first time renters and immigrants, works:
Many of the scammers will pose as real estate agents or “apartment hunters” who offer to work with a prospective tenant to locate an apartment. These individuals will demand that consumers pay money up-front in the form of a deposit, fee and/or first month’s rent before attempting to secure an apartment. They will often pressure the victim by appealing to their sense of urgency or special circumstances. Once the money is handed over, the scammer usually has no intention of following through or helping the tenant secure an apartment, and refuses to return the consumer’s deposit. Many consumers will simply accept the loss and move on for fear they will be singled out or because they are not familiar with the particulars of real estate transactions.
In order to help people victimized by apartment rental scams, Cymbrowitz listed the following checklist to help renters, as well as remind them of their rights:
- Check if the real estate agent or apartment information vendor is licensed in the State of New York. Visit https://appext20.dos.ny.gov/
nydos/selSearchType.do and enter the name of the person or business, or call (518) 474-4429. In New York State, all real estate professionals must be licensed by the Department of State, and must renew their license(s) every two years. Do not rely solely on a person’s testimony, business cards or advertisement.
- Under no circumstances should you be required to pay an up-front payment or fee before securing an apartment. Do not be persuaded by anyone pressuring you to pay money up front.
- Non-refundable commission deposits are not permissible. An agent earns a commission when he or she assists the landlord and tenant in reaching an agreement on all of the terms of the apartment rental.
- Commission fees are negotiable. You have the right to negotiate the amount of the commission to be paid to a broker or salesperson. There is no such a thing as a mandatory commission rate.
- Make sure the property you are interested in is legitimately for rent. Many scammers act as representatives of real estate that is not on the market or does not exist.
- Remember to obtain a receipt for any deposit or payment you make. If an agent collects fees that you owe to the landlord, such as a deposit or the first month’s rent, the agent has an obligation to separate that money from his or her own. If the money is not immediately provided to the landlord, the agent must put the money into a separate escrow account until the transaction has been closed. If the transaction does not close, the agent cannot keep the money for him or herself and must return it to you.
- Avoid making payments or deposits with cash. It is always better to leave a paper trail by using a credit card or a personal check. Make sure to save a copy of the payment for your own records.
- Ask for copies of all documents: checks, money orders, the application, receipts, the lease and any other document related to your apartment rental and keep them in a secure location in case they are needed to dispute a charge.
Searching for a new apartment is often a nightmarish experience. When trying to find a place, I recommend that you enlist as much help as possible from family and friends, especially if you are new to renting. Also, in doing your research, be wary of places that seem too good to be true from sellers who are desperate to make a quick deal. Like Cymbrowitz says, make sure to get copies of everything to create a long paper trail for your own records and above all, never be pressured into making a decision on the spot without having checked out all the facts of the place in question.