Rental scams still flourishing -- beware
If you're in the market for a new rental home, make sure you don't get conned by a scammer using a seemingly sweet deal as bait.
Online fraudsters posing as landlords -- advertising real properties they don't actually own -- are grabbing prospective renters' deposit money. Other scammers go the other route, pretending to be renters in order to steal from legitimate landlords.
It's a subject we've talked about before, but it's worth a reminder because it's still happening -- as Robert H. Leininger, a real estate agent with Real Estate Professionals Inc. in Baltimore, discovered recently.
"I received a call about a week ago from someone who said they had seen one of my listings on a 'For Rent By Owner' web site," he told me in an email.
He hadn't advertised there. But a scammer had -- using the listing information from a property he had already helped an owner rent out.
The scam ad didn't have his contact information, of course -- just the email address of the supposed owner. But the caller, a woman hoping to rent the place, found Leininger's number when she Googled the address and happened across a virtual tour of the property he'd put together. So she connected with Leininger as her boyfriend was emailing the "owner."
Leininger didn't initially feel uneasy to hear one of his listings was in an unexpected place because so many sites automatically pull in details from the multiple-listing service. He explained the home had already been rented and offered to help the couple find something else suitable.
Then the so-called owner emailed back. Guess what? The place was available! He was eager to rent it because he was working in the UK. All he wanted for the three-bedroom house, which is located in a ritzy North Baltimore neighborhood and comes with a gourmet kitchen and a two-car garage, was $1,500 a month -- and a $1,000 deposit, of course.
The couple forwarded the message to Leininger, who saw that the name was right but the email address wasn't. The message was full of misspellings and grammatical errors. And the asking rent? Designed to entice, considering that "my listing had been rented with a year's lease for $2,200 per month," Leininger said.
"I contacted the legitimate owner to find out what was going on, and he said he had no idea of any of this," he said. "The e-mail received from this fake 'owner' stated that he would like to know more about the potential renter, and asked usual questions such as if any pets or children were involved, but also asked what type of work they did and other inappropriate questions at this stage. The potential renter then received yet another e-mail, this time with an application attached. This application requested personal information from the renter."
The couple didn't respond, of course. And hopefully they wouldn't have, even if they hadn't happened across the agent who handled the real listing. But people have been taken in by this scam, because it's more subtle than the emails out of the blue that begin, "Dear Sir/Madam, I have a splendorous business proposition for you ..."
Leininger alerted the website that it had a scam listing and got it taken down. He suggested to the real owner of the house -- his client -- that a call to the FBI would not be amiss, since the client's name was being used by a con artist.
"I assume what happened is that this person saw my listing, copied my photos (right click and save) and my copy, and posted the listing as his own," Leininger said. "It would be easy for him to find the owner's name from public tax records. Who knows how many other listings that was done with!"
So be cautious, renters and landlords. You don't want to lose money or put your Social Security and bank account numbers in danger. Rule No. 1: Does it smell a bit fishy? Run, run away.
Snopes, the site that works to separate rumors from fact, says red flags for potential renters to watch for are landlords who are eager to rent quick-quick at below-market amounts, who don't make the property available for you to look at and/or who ask for money before you have a signed contract and keys in hand.
Come across a scam? Report it to the FBI.