Pay attention to red flags

Recently I was looking for an apartment to rent – I’m moving back to LA from Palm Springs – and found a possibility on one of the rental sites (you know, like Apartment.com or Zillow). The property described sounded like what I was looking for and the rent was about right for the age of the property, its amenities, and its location.

The security deposit was a more than what is typical, and that was a tiny red flag. Most LA landlords ask for one month’s rent as a deposit and this place was asking for two. But it’s not completely out of line to ask for two months’ rent as a deposit.

The listing did not have a phone number to call so I sent an email through the service and the next day I received a response from Marie S, writing from a gmail account named Marie223@gmail. com (I’ve changed the name/address slightly here).

This was another tiny red flag. But I get legitimate emails from people who don’t give their full names and who use random gmail or even Hotmail addresses so it was just that, a tiny red flag.

I asked for a showing and was told that Marie would leave the door unlocked for me if I would tell her what time I would be there.

This was another tiny red flag. Certainly a lot of property management companies do similar things in LA, since trying to get across town to meet a prospective tenant at a specific time can be a challenge. And earlier in the pandemic, not meeting prospective tenants in person was very common, so, again, this was merely a tiny red flag, but certainly something that had a reasonable explanation. Small apartment buildings are often owned or managed by people who have day jobs.

When I arrived early, another tenant who had the key unlocked the door for me. She seemed very pleasant and told me a few things about the apartment and seemed happy enough with her unit. I didn’t quiz her but she helped make the process feel legit.

When I got home, I emailed Marie and told her I liked the place and what were the next steps. Her reply said, “Fill out this application form and I’ll pass it along to the landlord.”

The application form wanted my social security number and other private information. This is perfectly understandable when renting – of course any landlord will do a credit check and make sure you can pay the rent – but it struck me that all I knew about this person was that Marie S had listed a vacant apartment that she apparently had access to on a rental site. I had no phone number for her, not even a last name – no way of finding her again if she decided to stop answering her emails. I had never met her and couldn’t describe her.

So, I sent her another asking if she was subletting and saying, “I would prefer to deal directly with the landlord.”

Almost immediately I received a reply. Marie said she was just helping out the landlord by answering emails.

This did not reassure me in the slightest. She knew my full name and she knew my phone number. Five minutes on Google looking me up would show her I’m a real person with several websites, a LinkedIn profile, and a few sworn enemies.

But she did not give me her full name, she did not give me a phone number, she did not list a property management service she worked for, and she did not supply the name of the landlord or the building owner. In other words, she made no effort to build trust.

I said, “I’m not comfortable sending my private information to someone who just goes by ‘Marie S.’”

If she was a legitimate helper, this was a chance for her to share credentials. She did not. I never heard from her again.

For all I know she’s a he and lives in Russia.

Now, does this mean I was nearly the victim of an apartment rental scam? I don’t know. Maybe Marie S is just some old lady’s poor, put-upon niece who is trying to help out and finds people like me annoying. There are probably plenty of other people who wouldn’t ask questions. And maybe one of them is now living in that nice apartment with the nice view.

That’s the challenge with what we might call self-defense – defending yourself from people who may want to hurt or defraud you. When you get out of the elevator to take the stairs because you don’t like the vibe of the man who just got on, or you cross the street to avoid the group of boisterous teens, or you ask a friend to pick you up from the coffee shop instead of waiting at the bus shelter because you’re not sure if that person hanging out nearby is a threat or not – you take these steps and you make it home safely without knowing whether there ever was an actual threat. Maybe you were just overreacting.

For me, this whole experience was maddening because I liked the apartment and I wanted to be done with the apartment-hunting process. I wanted very much for this listing to be legitimate and to start arranging for movers right away.

That’s the kind of impatience predators (scammers, criminals, anyone who preys on other people) are looking to exploit.

I’m telling this tale because it connects with freelancing. When we’re vetting clients, we’re often a few days away from a bill that’s due or aware that we’ve just been through a dry spell, or waiting for a repeat client to turn up again, and we really need for this client to come through. We need the work, we need the money, we aren’t sure what will happen if this doesn’t pan out, but it’s probably not going to be rainbows and sunshine. We want this to be a legitimate opportunity. And most of the time it is. But some of the time it is not, and this is where our eagerness to land a client can get us burned.

It is much easier to be careful about clients and to notice red flags when you have a waiting list and plenty of money in the bank. Then a potential client can do something as minor as misspell your name and you’re writing them off as wasting your time. But when we’re impatient to get going – newly starting out, needing money, or even just wanting to prove to ourselves that we can get clients – that’s when we have a tendency to fall for scams.

Always take a moment to reflect on potential red flags before going forward with any client.

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