Beware of rental scams

Nov 8, 2023 | Ask the Realtor

In recent weeks, an alarming scam targeting hopeful renters has resurfaced. With housing inventory prices on the rise and affordable housing becoming scarce, scammers are taking advantage of desperate individuals searching for rental properties.

It starts with an enticing online ad showcasing a property with stunning photos and an unbelievably low monthly rental price. Eager renters often jump at the opportunity. What follows is a well-crafted narrative, typically involving a supposed owner facing hardships like military deployment, immediate job transfers or tenant emergencies. These scenarios create a plausible reason why the owner cannot meet in person or allow potential renters to visit the property.

The scammers usually prey on the victim’s emotions. They then request payment in the form of money orders or gift card transfers as a way to secure the property. Once the money is sent, the scammers either disappear entirely or escalate the deception by sending a fake rental agreement. Victims are urged to execute the agreement and send first, last and security deposits within a short timeframe, often promised a discount on the second month’s rent as a lure.

At this stage, scammers instruct renters to contact a local locksmith to rekey the property, providing the rental agreement and email exchange as false proof. Falling for this scheme could result in illegal squatting, with potential legal consequences. Victims are left out of money and without a place to live.

This past weekend I encountered a near-victim who shared his unsettling experience. The scammer, identifying as “Andrew,” offered a house in Crestline for a monthly rent of $1,300. Andrew claimed to live out of state; he said his mother was the current tenant but had been diagnosed with cancer, prompting him to relocate her. He urged potential renters not to visit the property to avoid distressing his mother and promised possession on the 16th, following her move on the 15th. Andrew explained that the house still contained furniture and wasn’t cleaned, offering a discount on the second month’s rent as compensation. Additionally, he claimed there were no keys as the property used a combination lock due to the safe neighborhood and suggested rekeying.

Thankfully, the gentleman seeking to rent the property reached out to me, who immediately confirmed that the house was not for rent. I contacted the actual property owner and helped address the situation. The victim filed a report with the sheriff, reported the fraudulent ad on Craigslist and put up a sign to deter potential renters.

To safeguard yourself from falling victim to rental scams, remember the old adage: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Perform due diligence by taking the following steps:

Screenshot the photos from the ad and run them through a Google reverse image search to check for duplicates or inconsistencies. Research the property’s history and previous ownership. Contact the person or agency who last represented the house to confirm its availability. Finally, consider seeking rental properties through established local property management companies with a well-known presence in the community.

If you are a property owner, it’s essential to periodically search for your property address online to check for fraudulent listings. If you suspect your property is being used in a scam, file a report with the local sheriff’s office to document the fraudulent activity and take immediate steps to secure your property and prevent unauthorized access. If someone has already gained access, avoid confrontation and consult with legal experts to protect your rights and determine your next steps.

Rental scams are on the rise, and scammers are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Staying informed and cautious is crucial to ensure your housing search ends with a legitimate and secure rental agreement.

If you’d like to learn more about the current local market conditions, explore available options or subscribe to local market statistics that you can follow at your own pace, reach out to Theresa Grant, Real Estate Broker (DRE #01202881) at [email protected]. You can also follow her on Instagram, @theresagrantrealtor, and YouTube, @theresagrantrealtor.

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