One of those most daunting elements of an international move is the fact that you’re going to be traveling across the world and you might not have a roof over your head when you arrive to move under. It’s a basic necessity and we’re all eager to confirm housing so that we can get our life started, but in many cases, this can be a quick way to fall victim to a common scam.

If you’re moving to a smaller city or a more suburban area then a lot of this advice isn’t going to be especially relevant or helpful. If you’re looking at a house, stick with a reputable company and trust the fact that the reputation of that company relies on you being happy.

However, if you’re moving to a bigger city, like New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles, you should know that it’s a common trap to rent you an apartment that is nothing like what you see in the pictures and description.

How the big city rental scam happens

Here’s the scenario: You start searching online and realize that finding an apartment isn’t quite the walk in the park that you thought it would be. First, you’re trying to assess the area that you’re moving to and can’t decide if the neighborhood is appropriate, affordable, and comfortable.

After getting over that initial hurdle, it’s now time to work out what kind of apartment you’re looking for. Are you looking for a room, a whole place, two rooms, amenities, particular features, a rooftop pool, or just a front-door that works?

All that is done and now you’ve got your filter finely tuned and you’re combing through what feels like endless lists of apartments with different levels of work and costs involved. Suddenly, you find one that cuts above the rest, it looks too good to be true, it’s got everything you’re looking for and the price even comes in under budget.

This all looks great and you start your inquiries. The number or email listed immediately responds and clarifies a few of your questions and then sends you some extra pictures. They don’t even need the whole amount of money up front and are happy to give you a good deal despite the fact that you don’t have good credit.

You’ll be sent a “contract” to sign (it could even be legitimiate), you will pay some money up front to secure things, and everything is in order for your move.

When you get to the US, bags in hand, you go to the address you are given and one of three things will happen:

  1. The apartment is there, as agreed, and you move right in;
  2. The apartment is there, but the person doesn’t who answers the door has no idea who you are, and no idea who you signed a contract with, and (genuinely) has nothing to do with any of your prior conversations;
  3. The apartment is there, somebody answers and lets you in, but it’s nothing like what you had expected; or
  4. The apartment doesn’t exist at all.

I don’t want to be too cynical and say this never happens, but the fact is that it’s very unlikely to happen, and if you’re in this position, there’s a good chance you’re falling victim to a very common scam.

Outcome #1 is great, and I wish you all the best, you’ve navigated things like many can’t.

Outcomes #2 and #4 are crappy because you’ve lost that deposit, and you don’t even know who you can follow-up with, but that’s the end of that, and at least you can walk away with a story.

Outcome #3 can be the most difficult of all of the scenarios because you may have genuinely signed a contract, and you therefore are not only out a deposit, but you may also have a real lease that you now have to honor.

So where to from here?

What to do if you’ve fallen victim of a rental scam

Ok, so it’s already happened and you’re reading through this desperately thinking “why oh why didn’t Josh write this sooner!?”

The first thing you should do is find yourself somewhere safe to settle your stuff and take a deep breath. Yep, this sucks, and you’ve barely worked out which way is up before already being scammed. I’m really sorry! But don’t worry, this will look better tomorrow, and we’ll get through this.

The second thing you should do in a big city is call 311.

311 is your non-emergency resource for everything that happens in a big city. If there’s too much noise, something is happening that you’re worried about, or you just want to talk through some options, 311 can help.

Tell them what’s happened, tell them where you’re at, tell them what you know, and they might be able to help. Especially if you’ve moved into a place that doesn’t feel safe, they will be able to guide you through the next few steps.

The third thing you should do is start looking for an apartment to actually move to, and there’s more about that below.

How do you avoid the scams and find a better place?

My first and most important piece of advice is to not rent a place you find without physically seeing it yourself. Yep, even if you’ve had a walk-through on Zoom, and the landlord seems like a real gem, this is a business for some and they will do a fantastic job selling it. Without being right there physically seeing the space and everything that comes with it, you’re going to run into trouble along the way.

There are some exceptions to this rule like you’ll see below but they are very limited.

If you have a real friend, a person that you knew before you started looking for an apartment, and someone you would happily leave alone in your apartment, then get them to do the walk-through and give them a list of things to check for you.

At the time of writing, apartments are in low demand, so you hold the power and you should make sure it’s exactly right for what you want and ticks all your boxes.

Secondly, I would only ever consider short-term leases until you’ve lived in that area of the city and you’ve physically seen the place yourself (this even applies to having a trusted friend going through).

There might be a quirk about the apartment that you hate, or the area might not be anything close to what you had hoped, or maybe it’s just not giving you the right warm-and-fuzzies, you need to be there.

Take an apartment sublet when you first arrive and go month-by-month until you’re settled. You might want to move around, you might find that your commute is difficult, you might make friends in another area, who knows, but give yourself the freedom to roam.

To find these apartments, try to avoid using tools like Craigslist. Craigslist is great if you know how to navigate it, but it is FILLED with potential scams and traps for new players. Instead, use Facbeook groups in your area, or for expats from your country looking for accommodation. Trust the conversation, immerse yourself for as long as possible before signing up for anything, and get a feel for how people operate.

Finally, have a read of my article about where to live when you first arrive. I’ve tried to detail some options and outline some of the terms you’ll see, and they’re all important.

Happy hunting and good luck!