PhotoThere are certain milestone stories almost every American adult has. Nicer ones include “the day you got your first driver's license” or “went on your first date”; less-happy ones include “first speeding ticket” and, especially in the Internet era, “first time you tried renting a place to live and came across a rental scammer.”

My first time with a rental scammer was a couple years ago, when I wrote an email expressing interest in a likely-looking ad, and soon received a badly misspelled missive mentioning in the very first paragraph that the “landlord” is a Christian missionary currently stationed in China, so I'd have to wire the rent money there.

The way such scammers usually operate is simple: go online to a genuine real estate website offering places for sale or rent; copy the photos, addresses and other information from various listings; then use this to put up a convincing-looking listing of your own, usually on Craigslist or some other local-based classifieds board.

I never bothered writing the “missionary” back, and never heard from him again. Which was lucky, because in Colorado Springs this week, news site KKTV warned that a strain of more aggressive rental scammer is harassing area residents who don't respond to the initial come-on emails:

Monique Vollmer, the [legitimate] listing agent, heard from one woman who didn't fall for it.

Monique tells us, "This scammer was harassing her. This scammer continued to call her and email her, was sending her bogus leases, was trying to encourage her to sign up with him and to put a deposit on the house."

How can you protect yourself from scams like these? Avoiding step one – sending that initial email in response to what looks like a genuine real-estate listing – might not be possible at all. Sure, you know to watch out for obvious signs like a too-good-to-be-true rental offer — but that scammy “Chinese missionary” ad I responded to asked for a typical market-rate rent.

But what about step two? What signs of a scam can you look for? The most obvious is: don't agree to rent anyplace if you haven't met the landlord or landlady face-to-face — not even if they offer excuses like “I can't come to meet you; I'm in China!” (Legitimate property-owning landlords might well choose to go out-of-country for long periods of time — but they hire rental agents to manage their properties back home.) Even if you do meet the landlord or rental agent face-to-face, don't trust them if they don't have the keys to the actual house.

Never agree to send payment in cash, via wire transfer, or any other untraceable method. (This anti-scam rule applies to all matters, not just real estate transactions.)

And do a little due diligence of your own — after rolling my eyes at the Chinese missionary I did a little online research about the house mentioned in the ad, and discovered I couldn't have rented it anyway, because not only was it for sale rather than rent, it was in a 55-and-older assisted-living community.

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