When you have an empty rental, finding the right tenant can be a challenge, especially as you feel the financial pressure a vacancy brings. As a property owner or investor, that’s why you have screening procedures for rental applications in place (like our top 10 tenant screening tips) to protect your investment and ensure you’re filling the unit with a top-notch, trustworthy renter. In addition to the standard background and credit checks, get one or two former landlord references. You know, landlords tend to look out for each other and will give you solid info.
However, it’s surprisingly common for some potential tenants to ask a friend or pay a service that specializes in fabricating references and documents to fake a letter or phone call detailing their key qualifications as a tenant. Don’t believe us? Just check out this real world scenario—this really happens. A quick Google search also reveals shady companies like Paladin Deception and Reference Pal willing to act as a bogus reference in exchange for money.
Maybe the tenant didn’t pay their rent on time, or severely damaged the unit, so they know they won’t be able to get your rental with a real reference. What property owner wants a tenant with that kind of history? Definitely not you. As the landlord, you want to select renters with clean track records to create a landlord-tenant relationship built on trust, communication, and transparency. So, how can you step up your screening process to know what’s real and what’s not in the hopes to find your ideal tenant? Check out the seven tips below and get ready to play detective.
Instead of calling as a landlord (what’s expected), it’s time for you to brush off your acting skills. Pretend to be a renter interested in seeing any available properties. An obvious imposter may be confused, stumble over their words, or hang up immediately, signaling a red flag, whereas another landlord would have a simple yes or no answer. However, this isn’t foolproof as deception services and even friends/family can expect this call. That’s why it’s important to dig deeper—be bold and schedule an appointment to see the property. Imposters won’t want to take it that far, or will cancel at the last minute to keep up the charade.
Now you’re inquiring as the landlord. Putting your sleuthing skills to work when getting answers about the tenant. Be wary if they are too vague. If the reference is passively agreeing to what you’re asking about the tenant or isn’t sure what to say, that could also be a sign of a false reference. If you can’t get concrete details about the tenant (e.g. if they paid rent on time, if they caused trouble, how they communicated with the landlord, etc.) or if they have a sudden excuse to hang up (use your imagination), chances are this person isn’t a landlord. Granted, some landlords can be very busy or might not remember each tenant.
Also be wary if the responses are too personal—such as info only a friend or family member might know, like just how clean the bathroom is and how loud they play their country music at night. While landlords can have good relationships with their tenants, it’s not common for them to become close friends. Do you hang out with your residents? Unlikely. However, this isn’t a total reason to think the tenant roped in a phony reference as some landlords can have amicable relationships with their residents.
Take it to social media. Search the reference’s name and see if there are any ties to your applicant’s profiles, whether they’re each other’s friends or followers, or if they’re tagged in each others’ pictures/posts. If there’s some overlap between the profiles, chances are it’s a personal relationship rather than a landlord-tenant relationship. You probably don’t have pictures with your tenants, right? Dig a little more into the reference’s profiles, but remember some landlords can be more personal with their tenants and also might not have information specific to being a landlord on their pages.
Landlords usually keep files on their tenants even after they move out. Meticulous record keeping is a good quality in this line of work. Definitely verify information such as move in date, move out dates, social security number, and birthday. Pro tip: Ask the reference to give you the information rather than you dictating the details so all they have to do is agree. Note that landlords with smaller portfolios may not keep the best of records, but if all of the landlord references can’t verify this info, something is definitely off.
Property tax and land records are publicly available. It’s easy to check the landlord’s name and see what comes up, or search for records concerning the property. If the name matches the address given, the reference is fairly legitimate. However, discrepancies can also exist if the landlord sold the residence or if the tenant actually provided the property manager’s contact information.
Search the phone number you were provided. See if it matches up with the name of the reference. Or do it vice versa—search the landlord’s name and see if the same number pops up. Visit the landlord’s website or see if it matches the number advertised with the posting, if either exist. Some tenants may give you the landlord’s cell phone number, especially if the landlord only has a few rentals and isn’t in the business of property investment. If you find a different number advertised with the property listing, give that a call and find out why it’s different.
Go full-property-owner now. Ask for specifics on the property, like how many units are in the building, the square footage of the unit, what kind of amenities the unit offers, other idiosyncrasies, etc. Or, give inaccurate information about the unit’s details like the cost of rent, or if parking was included, and see how the reference responds—if they correct you or not. Also ask for landlord-specific advice, like handling late rent or inspections, and see if the reference is able to give legitimate tips.
None of these tips are foolproof as each property owner often has a completely different way of conducting/organizing their business. And, some imposters might go to far lengths with knowing specific information or creating a combination of false details to keep up the facade. We recommend using a combination of these tips to verify references, and if something seems off, dig deeper.
You must thoroughly investigate before fully eliminating a potential tenant with grounds of false info to avoid a lawsuit—simply going with your gut or using one tip isn’t enough. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) makes it illegal to refuse to rent based on an applicant's race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status, or disability, so it’s important you do your due diligence in screening. When considering multiple tenants for a rental, set minimum qualification criteria, measure each applicant against them, and then choose a fair way to pick the tenant. You can include criteria that immediately disqualifies lying applicants.
Avoid getting fake references in the first place by informing applicants of the consequences of lying on the application. This applies to all the info you’ll find in the background check and credit check, including landlord references. Make it clear that applications with false information will immediately be rejected and you will not consider them in the future. If you’re struggling to fill a unit and need help screening applicants to find the right one, consider bringing on a property manager who is well-versed in resident screening procedures as well as with the FHA, and can help you navigate the screening process with confidence. Most property managers have access to professional applicant screening tools that ensure you sign the lease with ideal tenants.
Even tenants with good references might not work out. It’s necessary to dig into the details and consider each element of the application to find a person who’s the right fit for you and the unit. After all, you want to create a good relationship with a reliable and dependable tenant so your unit stays full long-term, your income is stable, and most importantly, you can focus on growing your investment.