Let’s listen in on a snippet of doorstep dialogue as Lou tries to open the front door of what he thinks is his new apartment, and then checks for a key under the welcome mat.

“Hello?” says Bud quizzically after he opens the door from the inside to find Lou bent over the mat.

“Hello,” says Lou, standing up, “you must be the owner.”

“No, I’m the tenant,” replies Bud.

“No, I’m the tenant,” says Lou. “I paid the rent in advance and drove all the way from Albuquerque to be here.”

“No, I’m the tenant,” responds Bud. “I paid the rent in advance and walked all the way from my couch to be here.”

This is not an Abbott and Costello routine, but the kind of confusing encounter that occurs all too frequently on the doorsteps of Santa Monica and Los Angeles. There are variations on the theme, depending on whether the situation involves leased-up tenants, short-term guests, or visiting tourists. But the bottom line is that people like Lou lose money and time to scams that use misleading, online offers of rental units that often turn out to be unavailable.

Tactics in rental scams include:

  • offering long-term and short-term housing at units that are already occupied — or don’t even exist.
  • double-booking guests, especially those visiting from other countries.
  • refusing to refund security deposits or rent paid in advance.
  • deceptive claims about the size or amenities of a unit.

These scams often cause extreme setbacks for the victims. For example, a family from Norway believed they had booked a condominium in Santa Monica for their vacation and paid rent and security deposit in advance. But upon arrival, the family learned that the owners had double-booked the condo and were refusing to allow them in or refund the money. In an expensive, foreign city, the family was forced to suddenly book new lodging without the benefit of advance research or any discounts.

The family filed a complaint with the Consumer Protection Division (CPD) of the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office. The CPD soon discovered that the owners had been double-booking, deceiving consumers, and refusing refunds on a regular basis.

The CPD filed charges and obtained eight criminal convictions against the owners along with restitution for the victims, fines, and court-ordered hard labor for the owners.

Here are some tips for avoiding rental scams:

  • Don’t wire money or pay in cash. Use more traceable forms of payment, such as credit cards if possible.
  • For long-term housing, always meet your prospective landlord or manager in person, preferably inside the unit.
  • Check the housing provider online by Googling its name along with the word “complaint.”
  • Watch for “scam alerts” next to the rental ads. Craigslist, for example, gives its users the option to red-flag suspicious vacancy posts.

If you learn of rental scams in Santa Monica, please call the Consumer Protection Division at 310-458-8336.

The Consumer Protection Division of the City Attorney’s Office enforces the law and educates the public about tenants’ rights, fair housing, consumer protection and other issues. They can be reached at 310-458-8336 or smconsumer.org.

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