Con artists have been taking advantage of the housing meltdown by acting as bogus landlords and renting foreclosures.

Here's how this typically plays out: A criminal will scout out a neighborhood and find the foreclosures. Then they call a locksmith out to the property and say they locked themselves out. Next they con the utility company into turning the utilities back on. When the coast is clear, they'll put up a "for rent" sign or list the property online.

Unsuspecting tenants go to look at the property and find it's a steal of a deal. It won't be offered at a ridiculous price, but it will be a real eye-catching price. The criminal who is masquerading as a landlord is only too happy to take a deposit and hand over the keys.

Once a tenant is in there, he or she may continue paying rent each month by sending it to a post office box. Then one day, out of the blue, someone comes around and says, "I'm with such-and-such bank and this is a foreclosure. Why are you living here??"

Here are some tips to protect yourself as a would be renter:

  • Search the county's property records to see who the owner is. If it doesn't match up against the owner renting to you, you know to be extra careful and suspicious.
  • Have the landlord show you a copy of the deed on the property, as awkward as that may be to ask.
  • Never pay security and first month's rent by cash or money order. Pay by check only. Crooks most likely won't take a check, because it creates an audit trail and opens up other potential criminal charges for them.
  • Don't wire any money for a deposit ever. Be suspicious of post office box addresses as a way to send monthly rent; physical street addresses are much safer.
  • Don't rent right on the spot -- even if you're getting the pressure to do so.Tell them you need to think it over.
  • Be sure you have a written and executed lease before occupying a property.

Image of Clark Howard About the author: Clark Howard

Clark Howard is a consumer expert whose goal is to help you keep more of the money you make. His national radio show and website show you ways to put more money in your pocket, with advice you can trust. View More Articles

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