Lessons Our (Failed) Applicants Taught Us
Sometimes, the best lessons come from the people you didn’t catch.
There’s a lot of truth to the notion that the best teacher is experience…sadly. We’d love to be able to say that we learned our lessons in quality tenant screening by reading about other people’s mistakes and taking their advice — but to be honest, there’s not many markets like ours. People might, in general, be as tricky and deceitful in other places as they are around here, but not much matches post-2008 Detroit in terms of pure unadulterated desperation. So we’ve learned a lot about how people can play the system — and we hope you can learn from our mistakes.
Our first tale is about a middle-aged, responsible-seeming man who came to the screening interview with everything in perfect order. He filled out his application in immaculate handwriting, gave us pay stubs, ample references, handed us a check for the deposit without hesitation, and shook hands with a firm grip. Everything seemed perfectly copacetic until his check didn’t clear. We called him and he offered a perfectly reasonable explanation about how his deposit to cover the check was a minute late getting to the bank and wasn’t processed in time. His next check did clear, and his references all gave the right answers.
Something still didn’t seem right so we did some digging on his employment. We Googled the information on his pay stub and found that it was purchased — there are businesses that deliberately make fake pay stubs for people. Our seemingly-perfect gentleman was a NINJA — a No Income, No Job Applicant.
Our second story is of a broad-shouldered, grizzled man who looked like he could have been a mook on any given Jet Li movie. Bald, soul patch, tattoos all over his back and shoulders, basically everything you’d cross the street to avoid if you lived in Farmville and only visited the city for special occasions. He explained to us that he was a fisherman who worked in the Bering Strait for a few months out of the year and worked the Great Lakes (for a lot less money) the other parts. He told us his income worked out over the course of a year, but he was basically broke for 8 months out of the year, and then caught up but was absent for the other four.
We called the guy in Alaska that he worked for, and confirmed his story. His credit report confirmed it, too — he was consistently caught up for four months out of the year, and then had trouble keeping up the other eight. We were OK with that, as long as he put a few months’ rent in an escrow account to be accessed if he couldn’t stay on top of things. He was surprisingly agreeable. He paid on time for two months, and then sent us letters apologizing and asking us to use the escrow money for two months. The third letter was postmarked from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho — and we immediately drove out to the house. It was being lived in by a completely different dude, who was trashing the place — and being charged a hundred dollars more in rent than we charged the original.
The Fishers of Men
The last story is from a pleasant young couple who professed to be work-from-home website-owning Christians. We were naturally a bit suspicious, but they checked out — their website’s WHOIS information showed the same address that they had listed as their prior apartment, and the apartment owner verified that they had lived there for two years without missing a rent payment. They moved in, and for thirteen months, everything was fine.
Then abruptly, the month after they renewed the lease, their rent payments stopped. We reached out by phone and email, and got no response. One of our office people on a hunch went to their website (they were selling a selection of DIY kits, like build-your-own-solar-cell type stuff), and it was parked. That’s when we got a call from the cops: they had arrested the couple living at our place, because they had a warrant out for their arrest — they had jumped bail on several dozen charges of cyber-crimes including several instances of identity theft and credit card fraud. They had been using their site to fish for credit card numbers, apparently for nearly a decade, and had been living under one of those other identities for a few years. Our screening process had almost no chance of catching them — we still don’t know how the police did it.
What can you take away from all this? To be careful and have a screening system in place that can address most of the scammer applicants out there! Every time an applicant complains about all the information we’re asking for and the written explanations we request, we just smile and take it as a compliment on the thoroughness of our system. If your screening system isn’t getting the same responses, perhaps you should be revisiting it…