In expensive rental markets like the Bay Area, apartment scams light on details and heavy on pressure to hand over deposits are nothing new. But recent alerts from financial watchdogs and data on rental housing schemes point to a fast-changing landscape for California renters trying to navigate the frenzied pandemic housing market, where some tenants are struggling to dig out of debt while others take advantage of discounted rents.
A new Apartment Guide report reveals that from January 2015 to May 2021, California was home to three of the nation’s top five cities for reported rental scams per capita: No. 1 Los Angeles, No. 3 San Francisco and No. 4 San Diego. The report also found that the busy summer moving season tends to be the most costly, when median losses have topped $19,000 per victim.
This year, the timing couldn’t be worse. After a slow start to California’s unprecedented $5.2 billion pandemic rent relief program, officials are pleading with tenants to apply for assistance before the state’s Sept. 30 eviction moratorium expires. But tenant advocates warn that a widening array of scams may be hindering those efforts.
“It’s really brutal out there in terms of trying to prove that you’re not trying to just get people’s information and take advantage of them,” said Leora Tanjuatco Ross, associate director of the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County.
Even before the pandemic, Tanjuatco Ross said her nonprofit was hearing more skepticism from renters worn down by years of rising costs and intense competition for housing. And now, dozens of community groups around the state have been enlisted to help pump out rent relief funds through a maze of city, county and state programs funded by the federal government.
As of last week, the state’s primary rent relief program had paid $282 million in funding to 23,760 households, according to the California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency — a fraction of the 807,000 households that the National Equity Atlas estimates are behind on rent. When adding in smaller Bay Area county and city rent relief programs, just 10% of nearly $900 million in funds available to the region had been paid out as of mid-July.
Now, efforts to speed up those payments are colliding with recent warnings from watchdog groups about scammers changing their tactics as pandemic rental protections start to expire.
“Con artists often take advantage of the confusion and stress surrounding major events,” the Better Business Bureau explained in an Aug. 6 alert. “As the eviction moratorium winds down, watch out for scammers offering loans, peddling credit repair services or promoting government programs.”
The Better Business Bureau’s scam tracker, which is just one snapshot based on consumer reports, identified more than 50 rental and moving scams around the Bay Area and 144 throughout California since the start of COVID-19 lockdowns in March 2020. They range from two roommates in Oakland who said they lost $4,190 after touring an apartment by sending money for a deposit through a cash app to a person in Los Angeles who paid $499 for an eviction defense service that never materialized.
One challenge is that the range of rental scams in California has already exploded in recent years, going far beyond familiar attempts to get apartment applicants to wire money to unknown recipients. Now, scammers may assure targets that they don’t need Social Security numbers, just a credit report. Or they repost photos from houses recently sold or listed for rent on more regulated websites such as Zillow, Vrbo or Airbnb, district attorneys in Santa Cruz County and elsewhere have warned.
Last year, the FBI’s cybercrime division reported more than 13,600 confirmed victims of rental and real estate scams across the U.S., making them less widespread than credit card schemes but more frequent than health care-related ploys. All told, real estate scams cost victims more than $213 million.
Around the Bay Area, rental scams have also taken root in areas reeling from fires and, more recently, in places seeing an influx of remote workers. Take a three-bedroom Santa Cruz bungalow with a white picket fence advertised for $3,600 a month last week on Craigslist and $4,600 a month on Zillow.
Find out if you’re eligible for legitimate state, county or local rent relief programs by visiting www.housing.ca.gov, texting “rent” to 211211 or calling (833) 430-2122.
Never agree to pay a fee for help with free rent relief programs, or give your Social Security number, bank account or credit card number to someone who contacts you.
If you hear about an organization offering help with rent, look up its name online with the words “scam,” “fraud” or “complaint” to see what others are saying.
California’s ban on evictions for nonpayment of rent lasts through Sept. 30. Tenant lawyers recommend following the “three S rule” if you get an eviction notice: Stay in your home, submit a declaration of COVID-19 hardship to your landlord, and seek rent relief.
Report suspected rent relief scams to www.reportfraud.ftc.gov or your local district attorney’s office.
“I cannot give you a tour in person right now,” the Craigslist poster said, instead offering an elaborate backstory about out-of-state cancer treatment and an image of a driver’s license with the same Santa Cruz address.
“Yeah, it’s a scam,” said Scott Joly, the Realtor trying to rent the actual house.
Lauren Hepler is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @LAHepler