Tips to avoid being taken by online rental scams

 

Not long ago I found a young woman in the lobby of my condo building in Coolidge Corner waiting for a man named Richard to show her unit 4.

“But that’s our place,’’ I said.

“You’re not renting it?’’ she asked me with a stricken look on her face that revealed she already knew the answer. In an instant she understood “Richard’’ was never going to show up. The woman explained that her brother, then living in Florida, had found my home posted on Craigslist when looking for a place to live in the Boston area this summer.

The fraudulent post advertised our condo for $1,600 a month — furnished — and the brother made an appointment for her to see it, but not without first signing a “lease’’ for a year via e-mail (including two assigned parking spaces) and wiring $4,500 to an account in New Jersey. “Richard’’ had told the brother there were several people interested in renting the unit, so he should act fast.

“Richard,’’ who claimed to be a doctor in Brookline and the owner of our unit, had been very responsive via text and e-mail but rescheduled the visit multiple times because he said he was in California remodeling another property he owned. As soon as the money came in, he went dark, the woman said.

It is a story that is heartbreaking but all too common: A con artist illegitimately posts an apartment for rent, usually on Craigslist or other online rental websites, hijacking photos from real estate sites. That’s how our unit fraudulently went on the market: We used to rent our condo furnished before moving back from the suburbs and briefly offered it on a vacation-rental website, creating nice-looking pictures for scammers to copy. (Other con artists are not as careful to make the offering look legit: In October, a would-be victim did a reverse search on the photos of a Cambridge apartment listed on Craigslist and found the pictures were from a London hotel room, according to a Wicked Local news report.)

The fake listings abound, and many go unflagged. A New York University study last year found that Craigslist fails to identify more than half of scam rental listings, with suspicious postings remaining for as long as 20 hours before being removed. Researchers reviewed more than 2 million rental posts in 20 major cities, including Boston, and identified about 29,000 fake listings.

The woman who came to see my condo filed a report with Brookline police. Her brother notified local police in Florida. I filed a report with the Brookline police, too, even though I wasn’t really a victim. Five days after the woman showed up in my lobby, I went on Craigslist and looked for apartments for rent in Coolidge Corner. To my utter shock, I found our condo fake-listed again. I certainly felt victimized then, so my immediate reaction was to report it as fraud to Craigslist. The site immediately took it down. (Craigslist did not respond to an interview request for this article, but a spokeswoman did refer me to the site’s advice on avoiding and reporting scams: www.craigslist.org/about/scams,)

I guess I haven’t watched enough “CSI’’ reruns: I realized too late that we could have conned the scammer with the help of Brookline police. Stephen Burke, Brookline police deputy superintendent, told me it would still have been very difficult to make an arrest if I had attempted to lure in the scammer, because everything is done electronically. And Burke said the police haven’t seen many rental scams in Brookline — “fewer than five in the last year or so.’’

In contrast, Craigslist scams are on the rise across the Charles River. The Cambridge Police Department saw a small uptick in the number of reports of rental scams, from 31 in 2015 to 34 last year. “Unfortunately, these scammers are very difficult to identify,’’ Jeremy Warnick, the department’s director of communications and media relations, said in an e-mail. That’s primarily because they are often overseas. Cambridge police haven’t made any arrests for online ad scams in the last year.

These scammers are getting away with about $3,000 on average in Cambridge, according to police figures. As of May 15, 11 online-rental scams had been reported to Cambridge police this year. This doesn’t include two late last month. The first involved a phony ad for a property on Magazine Street in which the victim transferred $3,675 into a suspect’s temporary account. The second was for a phony online listing for an apartment on Harvard Street.

(That’s not to say law enforcement isn’t scoring a victory here and there. In March, after a five-month investigation, police in Linden, N.J., charged a couple with defrauding multiple victims of more than $9,000 by fake-posting apartments for rent on Craigslist.)

Overseas or out-of-town renters are particularly vulnerable, and so are people looking for vacation homes. The Oak Bluffs Police Department posted a scam alert on its Facebook page in May, saying it had received two reports recently of falsified rental ads for Martha’s Vineyard.

If there’s a common denominator to the scams, it’s eager victims getting lured into a false sense of security by a responsive counterpart. The brother of the woman who showed up in my lobby engaged in an e-mail back-and-forth with the scammer, negotiating certain aspects of the fake lease, which undoubtedly makes the victim feel like he or she is in control and in a legitimate transaction. But as soon as the request for money begins, that’s when the alarm bells should ring.

Here are tips to avoid falling victim to a rental scam, courtesy of local law enforcement agencies and the Better Business Bureau:

■ Never wire money or use a prepaid card to put down a deposit, pay a vacation-rental fee, or submit the first and last month’s rent. “These payments are the same as sending cash,’’ said Warnick of the Cambridge police. Once you send it, you have no way to get it back.

■ Verify all real estate agencies with the Better Business Bureau.

■ Insist on having inside access to the unit before committing to rent it. If you’re out of state or the country, ask someone you trust to visit and confirm it’s for rent before sending a deposit.

■ Search online for the owner and the listing. If you find the same ad listed under a different name or another city, well, that’s a fake.

■ If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t. Our apartment was fake-listed for a little more than half ($1,600) of the median rent in Brookline. That’s how scammers lure in targets. If the price is lower than other comparable rentals, it may be a scam. Zillow offers pretty detailed research on median rents all over the country.

■ When a landlord says he or she is out of town or overseas, that’s another huge red flag. The landlord might even send you a fake key. If you can’t meet in person or if it’s a vacation rental that’s out of the country, pay with a credit card or use a rental website with its own payment system.

Report, report, report

Should you fall victim to one of these scams, file a complaint with your local police department, on the Federal Trade Commission’s website, and with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. Also, notify the fraud divisions at the three major credit reporting agencies: TransUnion (800-680-7289), Equifax (800-525-6285), and Experian (888-397-3742).

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HERNANDO SHERIFF WARNS OF CRAIGSLIST PROPERTY RENTAL SCAM

The scammers are using Craigslist to illegally rent properties to unwitting victims.

HERNANDO COUNTY – The Sheriff’s Office said there has been a recent resurgence of property rental scams in Hernando County.

These scams are being run through Craigslist ads, where scammers are posting legitimate property listings from real estate websites while trying to illegally rent the properties to unwitting victims.

The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office Economic Crimes Unit urges sellers and realtors to be vigilant in monitoring Craigslist to determine if their properties have been illegally posted – and have the listings removed. Potential buyers and renters should also perform their due diligence when searching for properties by researching owner information on theHernando County Property Appraiser‘s website.

How to Spot a Craigslist Scam:
* Rentals listed at an unbelievable price
* Wire money requests
* Requesting too much personal information
* Suspicious story or out-of-town landlord
* Incorrect information

How to Avoid Falling Prey to a Craigslist Rental Scam:
* Insist on meeting in person
* Do not wire transfer money
* Guard your money and information
* Do your research
* Reverse Image Search – right-click the images and select “Search Google for image.” Doing so will allow you to see if the same pictures have been used in postings anywhere else on the web.

 

Scammers now looking into real estate to target victims

You’re told not to believe everything you see online, especially when it seems too good to be true.

As scammers become smarter, they’re using websites you wouldn’t expect to get money out of people. If you’re in the market to buy, sell, or rent a home, beware.

“They use Zillow to take the photos to get the listing information, and then they tend to pop up on Craigslist, or they put them on Zillow as a rental as well,” real estate broker Shannon Foster-Boline said.

The catchy price wasn’t the case for Whitney Brooker and her fiance. They went as far as signing a lease agreement, only to find out they’ve been scammed and out almost $2,000.

“They said they were going to send over the keys, and then they asked for another month’s rent just to make sure we were serious, and I was like ‘yeah,’ after we already signed the lease,” Brooker said.

After two months’ rent had been paid, and a lease agreement was signed through email, the scammers went as far as posing with the real homeowner’s name, then asking for another $700. That’s when Whitney put an end to it.

“Once they kept on asking, that’s when we were like, ‘no, let’s not do this.’ We basically said, ‘you stole from our son It’s not just us, we can get by without eating, you stole from him, we need the money for formula and food,'” Brooker said.

Local 8 News reached out to the number Whitney has been in contact with—it was an out-of-state text-only number, another red flag.

“Don’t just take one source at face value,” Foster-Boline said. “With Zillow, I think it’s a lot easier to report a false rental, so take advantage of the tools, they’re trying really hard to try and eliminate scams.”

DON’T FALL FOR THESE COMMON SUMMER SCAMS

It happened to Shirley Kroot on a recent visit to Paris: the classic summer vacation scam.

“I was walking along the Seine one afternoon and a woman stopped in front of me,” remembers Kroot, a retired real estate appraiser from Tucson, Ariz. “I could have sworn that she picked up a ring right in front of me and handed it to me, asking for money for food.”

Kroot examined the ring, which was stamped with an “18K” sign. A fair trade, she thought.

“I gave her all the change I had, but she said it was not enough. All I had was a 10-euro note so I gave it to her,” she says.

But on the way back to her apartment, she stopped at a jewelry store to ask how much the ring was worth.

Rien,” said the jeweler. “Nothing.”

How did she know? The shopkeeper opened a drawer filled with other “18K” rings.

Summertime is scam time, so this is the time to brush up on your scam-ology. From moving scams to travel schemes, there’s no shortage of awful things waiting to befall you. And, as a bonus, I’ll tell you about the time I was almost scammed with a summer trick.

But first things first. What’s out there this summer?

Home Improvement Scams

“There are all sorts of variations to this but one common one is to say that they are doing work for a neighbor and they figured they’d knock on the door and see if you needed anything,” says Jef Henninger, a Tinton Falls, N.J., consumer attorney. “Since your neighbor trusts them, you should too, right?” Not so fast, he advises. First, you should actually speak to your neighbors to make sure that they used this person and that they did good work. Anyone can show up to your house with some tools and request money. And get everything in writing. Don’t fall for the old “I left the paper in my other truck, I’ll be back later.” Later may never happen.

Moving day scams

Last Memorial Day, the BBB sounded the alarm about moving day scams. You know, where a moving company quotes a too-good-to-be true rate and then holds your items hostage at the end. Noting that half of all moves occur between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the BBB advised customers to “do their homework,” noting that it had recorded 460 moving day complaints in the previous 12 months. Here’s your first assignment: Make sure the movers are licensed. You can do that on this site.

Vacation Scams

Where to even begin? Since one of my specialties is travel, I have no idea. It’s true, travel scams mushroom during the summer, since that’s when everyone tries to take a vacation. Maybe a good place is the proliferation of travel clubs, which offer discounts in exchange for a pricey membership fee. I have a long list of complaintson my consumer advocacy website. Travel clubs are easy to avoid. Simply put, never purchase a club membership. After writing hundreds of stories on the topic, I’m convinced that there’s no such thing as a legitimate travel club. Another piece of advice: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Avoid.

Summer Job Scams

Job scams are a year-round problem, but they rear their ugly head more often during the summer, when out-of-school kids look for employment. The Federal Trade Commission has done some good work on unearthing and identifying job scams. Scammers advertise jobs where legitimate employers do—online, in newspapers, and even on TV and radio. Here’s how to tell whether a job lead may be a scam: If you you need to pay to get the job, have to fork over a credit card, or it’s a “previously undisclosed” federal job, it’s a scam. Better yet, remember this—a legitimate job pays you, not the other way around.

Grandparent Scams

There’s no shortage of travel scams that target the elderly, including the well-known Grandparent Scam. That’s where someone posing as your grandson calls, claims to be in jail, and begs for money. Hey grandparents, just say “no.” If you suspect it’s really your grandson or granddaughter, call another family member to verify that the request is genuine. And beware of a caller who insists on secrecy — that can be a bad sign.

Street Scams That Prey on You

Practice your “no thank yous” as you explore your town or go on vacation. People there will be looking to scam you. If you think experts don’t get scammed like this, think again. In Kenya recently, I was accosted by a man who wanted to know if I could give him a dollar bill, since coins couldn’t be exchanged. But he only had three quarters. I said no and then watched a veteran travel expert fall for the scam. It can happen to anyone.

So this summer, be on the lookout for new and old scams. And remember, the only reason they keep coming back is that people keep falling for them. Don’t become a statistic.

 

The most common rental scams today

Online rental listing platform RentHop has just published the results of a study on the most common rental scams, along with advice on how to avoid falling victim to them. Any agents who work with renters should pass these warning signs and tips on to their clients.

Money wiring:

Should potential renters be asked to send funds using a service like Money Gram or Western Union, or some kind of “escrow service” before seeing the property, in all likelihood it’s a scam. RentHop says it’s never come across a case like this in which upfront payment via one of these methods is required by the landlord.

Demanding money before seeing the property:

Scammers just love to exploit those who urgently need to find somewhere to live. It’s well known that someone who needs to move quickly, in a market where rental properties are scarce, might do anything to secure what looks like an ideal apartment or home. But sending money upfront before verifying that the property does really exist is a big mistake. This advice excludes the standard request for an application fee (usually between $20 and $100) that will hold the apartment. RentHop advises agents to encourage renter clients to search Google for the property manager or owner to make sure they’re reputable before sending any deposit. Do they have a website? Are they mentioned on other websites? Is the person willing to speak to you over the phone?

Low prices:

As the old adage goes, if the price is too good to be true then it probably is. RentHop reckons that any property that’s priced around two-thirds below the general market price is likely to be a scam. Not always, but certainly do your research before parting with your hard-earned cash.

Suspicious emails:

Any email that comes with a non-U.S. domain, for example mrpropertymanager.ng, could well indicate a scam (unless you’re looking to rent a property in Nigeria that is!). Interestingly, RentHop also says that emails that come from Outlook.com are 19 times more likely to be a scam than emails from Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo, the study found. It didn’t say why scammers prefer Outlook to those other domains, but rest assured they do.

“Winner” claims:

If you receive an email or message from a purported property manager suggesting you’ve been “specially selected” the offer is more than likely to be a scam.

Sad stories:

If the person listing the rental goes on and on with a heartbreaking story in your correspondence, they’re likely trying to play on your emotions.

Copycat rentals:

A common scam is for a cybercriminal to copy a real listing and treat it as their own. That’s why it’s important to search for the address of the rental to ensure the listing price and contact information matches on various sites.

You can also check out the following infographic that contains a few simple questions you should ask yourself to determine if a listing could be a rental scam. Let’s face it rental scams are dormant, protect yourself and family by gaining proper information before spending your hard earned dollars.

 

Beware of real estate wire fraud scams

It seems you can’t turn on the TV or radio without hearing about some advertisement for identify theft scams. Well, now you can add one more scam to the list: wire fraud scam. And this is something that is popping up in real estate transactions involving large sums of money.

While your deposit for a home may be a check, the rest of the money sent for balance of down payment, bank loans and seller proceeds are mainly handled by wire transfer. Certified checks are also used, but wires are faster and the funds are immediately available.

According to Katie Bergren, branch manager of North American Title of Half Moon Bay and San Mateo, she started to see signs of this around two years ago. Somehow, emails have been hacked and viruses planted or crooks searched social media forums like Facebook to learn of people buying and selling homes. Then they send what looks like real instructions from a title company asking you to wire money to a different bank instead of what the title company told you before. Most people may not give this much thought; after all, who really pays much attention to banks or routing numbers.

 For a buyer, this can be a disaster in that you’ve sent your money to someone else and the prospects of recovering it are slim. For a seller, it’s as bad, in that the title company is insured, so your money is protected — although it may take some time to sort out.

The big question is how do you know if you get a fraudulent email from someone pretending to be a title company? Some signs are the email address may be a little different, like ending in .net instead of .com. Grammar might be bad. And, more importantly, it may not come in a secured manner. The real problem is that it’s very hard for someone to really know, since you don’t usually have a long-term relationship with the title companies like you do with your Realtor. They, of course, have long-term relationships with the title company and most likely suggested them.

So, North American Title has been taking steps to reduce the likelihood of wire fraud scams such as personally handing you written wiring instructions. All or most communications are done over secure encrypted emails. Bergren’s company makes a point of telling clients that they are not changing banks for wiring money, so, if you get something different from what she tells you, immediately ask for corroboration. They also double check things with personal phone calls too. In some cases, things are even done the old-fashioned way — hand delivery!

Title companies handle a lot of your personal information as well. To get a loan payoff from your lender, they will need your Social Security number and loan number to get the information from your lender. They don’t use email any more for this but call you on the phone to minimize the chances of having your sensitive information get into the wrong hands. When title companies communicate with other financial institutions, they always use encrypted emails for an extra level of security.

Keep in mind that the way title and escrows are handled not only vary throughout our state but are most likely quite different from how things are done in other states. Most of these regulations are set up by individual state insurance commissioners. Don’t assume that it will be what you knew from a previous transaction elsewhere.

It’s alarming that these hacks are becoming so prevalent and more creative, forcing people to question almost everything. Wiring funds has become so commonplace, not to mention easy to do, that most people are comfortable with this as the preferred method of moving money. Additional benefits are both the speed and immediate availability of funds.

Could a Home Improvement Scam Cost You $1,400? How to Stay Safe

Get-rich-quick schemes, phishing, rubber checks or money orders … odds are you’re hip to these con games and know to steer clear. Yet according to the Better Business Bureau’s Risk Index—an analysis of the scams consumers fall for—the greatest danger of a shakedown could actually be lurking in your home improvement projects.

In 2016, over 32,000 scams were reported to the BBB, which deemed scams surrounding home improvement the biggest risk based on three (unfortunate) criteria: how likely consumers are to be exposed to a con, how likely they are to lose money, and how much money they lose. Apparently, victims of shady contractors, painters, and other repairmen are bilked an average of $1,400.

This typically takes the form of servicemen giving lowball bids, then demanding more money later, or using someone else’s license to take your money and run. Don’t want to be a victim? Here’s how to protect yourself.

Check contractor’s license, insurance, and references

Even if your contractor was recommended to you by a friend or family member, make sure the contractor has a valid license.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for their license numbers upfront,” says Cedric Stewart, a real estate consultant at Keller Williams, in the Washington, DC, area. “Some states have online databases where you can check the license status.”

A Google search for “check contractor license in [your state]” should point you in the direction of a website that allows you to input your prospective contractor’s license number to make sure it’s up to date.

You should also, without hesitation, ask for at least three, if not more, references.

“Scammers usually have a couple projects that went well in the past, and they will use them repeatedly as references,” says former general contractor Sam Medicraft.

Make sure the contractor is affiliated and active

Jonathan Weinberg, founder and CEO of Builder Prime, a software service that helps contractors grow their business, recommends that consumers do a quick search (either online or by inquiring the contractor directly) to see if the contractor is a member of reputable organizations such as theNational Association of the Remodeling Industry or the National Kitchen and Bath Association.

“This is another indication that the contractor you are hiring is reputable as they will need to pass a level of scrutiny and pledge to observe a code of ethics in order to be a member of one of these organizations,” he says.

While you’re at it, check out the vendor’s online presence.

“Do they have a good website and active social media? That’s a good sign,” says Medicraft. “Most scammers want to disappear, so they leave as few traces online as possible.”

What to do if you suspect you were scammed

After placing your faith in someone to complete the job, it’s an unsettling feeling when you realize they might not have done everything you agreed upon. Where can you turn?

In these situations, Jody Costello, founder of contractorsfromhell.com and creator of the Home Remodeling Bootcamp for Women, recommends that you file a complaint with your state Contractors License Board or Consumer Protection Agency, as well as the BBB. But she cautions that restitution is slow and relief might not be what you’d hoped for.

All of this means it really pays to do your homework upfront before that handyman is even hired.