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Searching for a Roommate Online? How to Protect Yourself from the Most Common Scams

By Riley Gibson December 27, 2022 Lifestyle

Open to the idea of living with a roommate to save on monthly costs, but worried about charting the unknown on internet listing sites? Having a hard time keeping up with all of the latest scams that may pop up during an online roommate search? You’re far from alone, but you can be prepared.

Affordable housing is basically an oxymoron these days, pricing people out of the rental market and prompting more Americans to move in with roommates later in life. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, over a million older adults are house-sharing with a non-relative – double what it was 20 years ago.

Living with a roommate can save you money on rent, utilities and household expenses, but finding one online can open the door to potential scams. Knowing what to look out for can help protect you during your search for the perfect roommate match.

Recognizing Suspicious Behavior

A scam or hack can take many different forms, so it’s wise to be on the lookout for warning signs during your rental search. You may have good intentions, but that’s not true of everyone on the internet!

It’s common for bad actors to create an artificial sense of urgency to prompt you to act rashly. They may also take advantage of your politeness to pressure you into providing details that you would not otherwise share.

Many of us try hard to avoid offending others, even when they’re acting suspiciously or pressuring us to do something that feels uncomfortable. Just like we tell our kids and grandkids, it’s okay to say no!

Here are some behaviors to look out for that may indicate a scam attempt:

Urgent or Changing Requests for Money

  • Rushing you or putting pressure on you to act quickly to send money.
  • Insisting that you wire or otherwise send money to hold a room/rental space.
  • Asking you to re-send money because there was a problem with your account or the transaction.
  • Pressuring you to share details or send money without an executed lease or homesharing agreement.
  • Making last-minute changes to an agreed-upon payment method or rental terms.


  • Refusing or repeatedly delaying your attempts to meet in person.
  • Turning down requests to talk on the phone or video chat.
  • Refusing to sign a lease, homesharing agreement or other binding paperwork.

These behaviors may not always indicate a scam attempt – sometimes there is a legitimate reason to make a last-minute change or reschedule a planned meeting. But if your gut says something is wrong and you see one or more of the red flags above, you should trust your gut.

5 Ways to Protect Yourself Online 

No matter who you’re interacting with online, you should take the following simple precautions to protect yourself and reduce your risk of being targeted by scammers during your search for a roommate or place to live.

Postpone Sharing Your Contact Details

In most cases, initial communication between a homeowner and potential renter takes place via email or through a listing website. Listing websites with built-in messaging allow you to start the conversation with a potential roommate without revealing any of your personal information. If you want to keep a conversation going, you can choose when (or whether) to share this information.

If you’re communicating with a potential roommate via email (rather than messaging them through a listing website), don’t share your full name, location or phone number until you’re comfortable moving forward. Remember – you don’t owe anyone that information!

Avoid Sharing Sensitive Information

There is some personal information that a roommate simply won’t ever need to access. This includes:

  • Your credit card or debit card numbers
  • Your Social Security number
  • Your banking data (routing number, account number, password, etc.)
  • Details about your identity that can help guess passwords (birthday, pet names, grandkids’ names, etc.)

If someone is asking you for any of this information, stop communicating with them and, if applicable, report them to the website where you found them.

Insist on a Background Check

Background checks are a good way to screen a potential roommate, identify possible red flags and have general peace of mind about the person you could be living with. Even if you believe you’re a good judge of character, a background check can help you cover your bases.

You can request that the potential roommate provide you with a copy of their background check showing their criminal record, and even take one yourself to show transparency and a commitment to the roommate relationship.

Meet Face to Face

Never let a potential roommate pressure you into putting down a deposit before you have a chance to meet them in person and see the property. Choose a neutral and public spot such as a coffee shop for your first meeting.

You might also consider going for a walk to encourage a more natural getting-to-know-you conversation. If all goes well, arrange a visit to the property so you can look at it closely. You can also ask the homeowner if you can do a video call or virtual tour, if that’s your preference.

Sign a Lease or Homesharing Agreement Before Making Any Payments

Before any money changes hands, both parties should sign a lease or a homesharing agreement that captures the important details of your arrangement in writing. It’s for the protection of both parties. Free lease templates can be found online and you can customize them with your own specifications.

Every state has its own general template, so be certain to select one for your state to ensure it meets all the criteria to make it acceptable under legal conditions. Engage a lawyer to review your lease, if you have any special clauses or requirements.

If you experience any of these warning signs, never feel obligated to continue the conversation. Keep your eyes out for the telltale signs of a scam and always trust your gut if something feels off.

In the unfortunate event that you do become a target of a rental scam, you can report it to your local law enforcement as well as to the FTC or your state consumer protection office. You should also contact the website where you found the ad and make them aware of it so they can take the necessary action on their end.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Have you looked for ways to share your home with others – or find a shared home? Where did you look? What was your experience like? Have you stumbled upon suspicious ads/individuals?

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Shaggy Maggie

how to get a background check?

The Author

Riley Gibson is president of Silvernest, an online homesharing service that pairs boomers, retirees, empty nesters and others with compatible housemates. Riley is passionate about creating housing solutions for the future that enhance financial wellness and facilitate social connections for those over 50. Visit him at and or by visiting his LinkedIn profile below.

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