UCLA officials are warning students seeking off-campus housing to read housing contracts thoroughly and pay fees using traceable forms of payment to protect against the increasing threat of housing scams.
Christin Liu, an attorney at UCLA Student Legal Services, said housing scammers often target students close to the start of fall quarter, and have scammed more students than usual in the past few years. She said some scams copy existing advertisements but link to a different contact, while other scams advertise properties that are unavailable or even nonexistent.
Liu added she thinks students are increasingly vulnerable because they often communicate with landlords online. Doing so increases the risk of getting scammed, since the landlord can hide the fact the apartment is already occupied or not for sale, or can ask for payment without a visit from the prospective tenant, she said.
Liu added scammers have posted fraudulent ads on the Bruinwalk website, which provides students with reviews of apartments and professors, in addition to websites like Craigslist. She said many students trust Bruinwalk and believe all its listings are reputable.
“Vetting requires a lot of manpower, so don’t rely on (such websites) being vetted,” Liu said. “And if the post gets taken down, (scammers) can always upload a new one under a different name and no one would be the wiser.”
Scott Scheffler, a UCPD Investigations Division lieutenant, said police cannot vet advertisements beforehand, because it is difficult to tell which offers are illegitimate. Police can only respond when someone reports a scam or raises concerns about a suspicious ad.
Liu said properties with advertised prices lower than market value are often potential scams.
“If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” she said. “Tenants should be aware of the comparable market price.”
Vivy Li, undergraduate student government internal vice president, said she was scammed out of $3,000 as a first-year student. She said she had to look for off-campus housing after being evicted by UCLA Housing for not paying a required fee.
“I visited the apartment (I found) and they pressured me to sign, but after I signed the contract, they didn’t give me a key,” she said.
Li said after she signed the contract, she received an offer to move back into the dorms and asked her landlord to allow her to pull out of the lease. However, she said her landlord asked for $2,000 on top of the $1,000 security deposit she had already paid, a term that was not included in the contract.
“I was a freshman, I didn’t know anything – I got so scared,” Li said. “She said that if I didn’t pay, she would sue me.”
Liu said if students are suspicious that a property listing is not legitimate, they can contact UCLA Housing’s Community Housing Office, which keeps a list of contact information for vetted landlords and property managers. They can also contact a local real estate agent or title company to verify listings.
Liu said some fraudulent landlords pressure tenants to put down deposits before visiting the apartment. However, under California law, landlords can show a property to prospective tenants as long as they provide at least 24 hours notice to the current tenants, she said. Additionally, landlords cannot demand a cash payment unless the tenant’s check bounces.
Scheffler said scammers can often get away with asking for cash and money order payments, which are less traceable, by convincing the tenant the property is in high demand.
Students that have fallen victim to a scam should contact local police, or report the scam to government agencies such as the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Liu said. If a real estate agent is involved in the scam, students should contact the California Bureau of Real Estate.
Liu added UCLA’s Student Legal Services is also available to counsel students on their recourse options, as well as to provide information about safely securing a lease.
Scheffler said he thinks the best protection against scams is to be cautious, since recourse for victims is limited. Police can try to trace payments electronically, but if the payment goes to an out-of-state or international bank account, they can only refer the student to federal legal services.
He added it is difficult for victims to get their money back because most scammers empty or close their accounts as soon as a scam is complete.
“Scammers are targeting students in a way that is difficult to trace, making them difficult to catch,” Scheffler said.