When the recruiter and his roommate applied for a Hell’s Kitchen two-bedroom last year, they knew two things: The market was outrageously competitive and they themselves weren’t the most appealing candidates. Not that they were bad ones: The recruiter, who asked for his name to be withheld, makes over $100,000 a year, and he and his roommate both had good credit. But he didn’t quite make 40 times the $3,500 rent and his bank balance was low that week — he’d just paid his bills and gone on vacation. His roommate, an actor, had been working side jobs since Broadway went dark. So they made some “small edits” to their financial documents, changing numbers on bank statements and pay stubs to reflect what their earnings and savings had been in flusher times.
“We just kind of fudged those numbers,” he says. “I didn’t feel terrible editing the documents. I make over $100,000, I can afford the apartment. My roommate was a second lead on a Broadway show, then COVID happened. He has two other jobs and no problem making rent.”
In New York, where rents are high and the rental requirements extensive — it’s not unusual for landlords to ask for a credit score above 700, multiple months of bank statements, letters of employment, references, and pay stubs proving renters make at least 40 times the rent (or failing that, guarantors who make at least 80 times) — renters who lack the desired credentials say they have little choice but to lie. Sometimes the subterfuge is small, like having an applicant’s parents deposit a chunk of cash into her savings account to make her appear more solvent than she is or altering the dates on financial documents to disguise the fact that a lucrative gig recently ended. Others say they’ve fabricated everything from credit scores to income to employers.
Across the U.S., rental-application fraud doubled in the last few years, going from around 6 to 12 percent, according to Daniel Berlind, the CEO and co-founder of Snappt, a prop-tech company that detects rental fraud by vetting the back-end data on application documents, looking for the digital trails Photoshop and other editing software leaves behind. New York has a 6 percent rate of application fraud — less than the national average — but “still very problematic,” he said. Berlind, a landlord in L.A., started the company with another L.A. landlord in 2019 after realizing that no data-driven document fraud-detection service existed. The company has grown rapidly since then, thanks in part to the eviction moratorium. Berlind says Snappt’s research shows that people who’ve falsified application data have much higher eviction rates than other renters. Of course, that may in part be because landlords only have reason to go back to check delinquent tenants’ applications; tenants who submit falsified documents but pay their rent are likely never caught. And really, tenants say, what’s the harm if the rent gets paid on time?
“I’ve definitely fibbed quite a few times on rental applications,” says one recent college grad who used friends as professional references and told the landlord of her East Village studio that she made $100,000 a year as a freelancer in product design. She sent over the biggest paystubs she’d received in the last six months, implying that they were typical. “It was the perfect spot, but I wasn’t the ideal candidate. I was studying at the time and didn’t have much in savings,” she says. But she reasoned that the salary was “within the realm of possibility” after graduation, she didn’t have anyone who could act as a guarantor, and it wasn’t like she was going to find a place that rented for less — the studio cost $1,400 a month. So she did what she had to.
Now, she has a design job and actually makes what she said she did on her application, a development she attributes, at least in part, to her lie about being able to afford the apartment. “I took a risk, and I’m very lucky it worked out so that in the end I wasn’t lying, but I don’t know if I would be in this position, and able to actually afford this apartment, if I hadn’t been living in this apartment,” she says.
As for falsifying documents, it takes only basic Photoshop skills, renters say, although there’s some finesse to making sure everything checks out. Corey Cohen, the founder of the Roebling Group, a real-estate brokerage, says that some forgeries are so poorly done they’re easy to catch. He recalled one applicant who claimed to have $300,000 in his savings account. He bolded the amount on the bottom of his bank statement but didn’t bother to change any other numbers on the document, which showed a far less impressive $5,000. Another person claimed to be an investment banker, but the even numbers on his pay stubs were suspicious. When Cohen called the employment reference on the application, the man admitted he didn’t work at the bank.
“There’s an artistry in getting the info to be a flawless match,” says a photographer and designer who has forged documents for herself and many of her friends. (It was the only way they could get apartments their first few years in the city, she says.) “A lot of file formats use specific typefaces that, when replicated, don’t come out quite right because of how the file was handled. So to get a visual match, on top of the swapping, you have to ‘paint’ on some of the numbers to get them to look like they’re part of the document.” She makes her friends decide how much they want their savings to “grow.” For a multipage bank statement, they’d need to provide all the changes they want made and make sure the numbers add up.
“As long as it exists in a file format I can process, there’s pretty much nothing I can’t ‘adjust.’”
One renter said that her broker had done all the work for her; she and her roommate gave him all their real documents and he made them look like such ideal tenants that the owners of the condo they ultimately rented gave them a discount; it had been sitting empty for months before they moved in because the owners hadn’t been satisfied with other applicants’ financials.
For those who don’t come from wealth and can’t align themselves with wealthy roommates, the practice can be something of a necessity. More than a third of New Yorkers spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent. The average Manhattan rent hit more than $5,000 a month in July, which would require making $200,000 a year or having a guarantor who made $400,000. I spoke to one recent college grad who works on political campaigns whose parents didn’t make enough money to act as her guarantors. So after getting passed over for several apartments, she asked her parents to temporarily deposit a large sum in her savings account. She also doctored her employment contract to make it look like she was still working on a campaign for a candidate who had dropped out of the race. She and her roommates, who both have guarantors, moved into a Bushwick three-bedroom a short time later. “I really felt like I was going to have to move back in with my parents,” the woman says. “The only reason we got the apartment we got, which is a shithole of an apartment — it has bugs and electrical problems — was that I lied. I don’t respect what’s happening in the rental market, so I’ve also encouraged other people to lie. As long as you pay your rent, who cares?”
There is, however, one big potential pitfall document manipulators need to watch out for: not making their fake income high enough. Such was the case of the recruiter applying for the place in Hell’s Kitchen. Even with the fudged bank statements and pay stubs, the landlord asked him to get a guarantor. When he refused — “I’m 38. I’m not calling my mom and asking, ‘Hey, can you help me get an apartment?’” — the landlord insisted that in addition to paying the security deposit, they also get security-deposit-replacement service Rhino as a form of insurance. The cost for Rhino was an nonrefundable $200, which wasn’t a huge deal, but the recruiter hates that the landlord now has essentially two security deposits: the $3,500 they paid and the $3,500 Rhino will pay if the landlord claims damages. (Rhino reimburses the landlord first then charges them, after which they have to fight to get the money back.) It’s also borderline illegal. The 2019 rental laws prohibit landlords from charging more than the first month’s rent and one month’s security, but brokers told me they’ve heard of other landlords requiring Rhino as extra insurance.
“There’s no reason why I should be editing documents and jumping through hoops to get an apartment. I can pay the rent, but it’s not about whether you can pay the rent. Landlords are taking advantage. They set up all these roadblocks and apparently have no understanding of anyone’s financials who hasn’t been an investment banker for the last ten years,” he says. “So if I have to fudge something, I’ll fudge something.”