Almost all rental applications ask for references.
Unfortunately, references are maybe one of the easiest things for an applicant to fake.
Some tenants will just put down the names and contact information of friends and family on the application, so that their loved ones can vouch for them.
Many landlords and property managers go as far as to essentially disregard references during the screening process, or they at least put minimal weight on positive recommendations from references.
But if an application is marginal, or if you’re investigating a previous eviction or other black mark on the tenant’s record, you may not have that luxury. How can you, as a landlord, distinguish between a real rental reference and a fake one?
Make Sure the Consequences of Falsification Are Clear
As you put together the rental application, make it clear to your tenants what the consequences of lying on the application are.
Most landlords handle this by making it clear that if a tenant is caught lying on an application, the application will be rejected outright and no subsequent application will be considered.
You’ll still get applicants falsifying information, of course.
But with this warning, you’ll discourage the more honest applicants from embellishing their application, or adding a false reference.
Research the Reference
Before you get on the phone with a reference, don’t hesitate to check the Internet for information about the reference and the property they (supposedly) manage.
Does the individual have any other properties in the area? Are they in a line of work that implies that they have the money to own and maintain a rental property? Can you determine whose name it’s under, and does that information line up with what you’re seeing on the application?
If you see any discrepancies or suspicious information, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the applicant is lying.
The property may have changed hands recently, for instance, or the owner may have undergone a name change, or may be doing business as a different entity.
But keep these in mind as you contact the reference.
Interview the Reference
Talking with the reference is one of the most important steps you can take in this process.
Call them up and start asking them some basic questions, including: what were the start and end date of the lease? How much rent was the tenant paying, and was it paid on time? Does the tenant have any complaints? Would they rent to the individual again?
Listen carefully for hesitation.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the individual is lying — plenty of people feel uncomfortable talking on the phone, after all – but if they’re hesitating and their details are vague, you may be dealing with a falsified reference.
Remember that you can always bring up any discrepancies you’re seeing.
Don’t accuse the reference of lying, but you might choose to make casual mention that you’d seen that the property was owned by someone else, or you might ask them if they own any other properties and where they are.
Finally, listen for any bad information.
If a reference presents their information in vague, glowing terms, that may indicate that they’re falsifying.
Unfortunately, you don’t necessarily have any indication that a tenant’s reference is a real one, so you may want to place less weight on that part of the application than other, arguably more important ones like credit score and income verification.
But if you need to determine that a reference is legitimate, these tips, plus your intuition, may help.