I am a college student looking for housing, but a common problem my roommate and I have is confusion about how we are able to ensure that we won't be scammed when paying a security deposit. Most landlords that we find online ask us to send them an online payment urgently so that they can secure the place, but we aren't sure how we can ensure that this would actually be refunded or that the person won't just run off with the money.
My roommate and I have been asked to pay a security deposit to a supposed landlord before we have had the opportunity to visit the place and see the person. On the other hand, they have given us a leasing contract that states that it is legally binding and that the deposit is refundable, so is this good enough? Also, what can we do if the name of the account being paid to does not match the name on the contract? For example, they have asked us to pay to their account officer, and we don't really know if that is ok.
I'm under the impression that most agreements made in writing are legally enforcable, including text messages and emails. But what kind of actions can be taken against those who violate these? Also, what language can be used to ensure that a deposit will actually be refunded? Suppose a supposed landlord asked for a security deposit and then ran with it, would we be able to take them to court and take legal actions to get the money back? Would it be worth it, since I'm assuming such legal action isn't always cheap or free? Does this mean that we should never make a payment regarding housing before meeting the person in real life? My roommate and I have had issues with several landlords who have pressured us to make a security deposit in order to secure an apartment before we have had the chance to meet them in person, and we aren't sure if we should be as worried as we are.