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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