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January 31, 2011

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.

Here's a list of red flags for landlords to look out for.

Come across a scam? Report it to the FBI.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 6:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Renting
        

Comments

Thanks for reporting on this, Jaime. My husband and I were scammed about two years ago and it hit us hard. We were so excited about the opportunity that we just ignored the red flags - which we never, ever do. That's how wooed we were.

I hope that no one else goes through a rental scam; it really is disheartening and makes you incredibly wary of any landlords in the future.

I'm really sorry to hear it, Renee. Scams seem to pop up everywhere these days.

Hi Jamie,
Many thanks for your report. It seems such scams are becoming more successful as the cybercrime industry matures. It does not surprise me that Robert Leininger alerted you about this issue. He is one of the bright lights in the Baltimore real estate market, always watchful for his clients and fellow realtors.
Cindy Faith
Coldwell Banker Roland Park

I am not in the rental market right now but wow this was very interesting. I did not know this was going on. The gall of these scammers!

I had a scammer steal my rental property info and advertise it on Craigslist. My neighbor spotted it and told me about it. There is really nothing the police can/will do with these things, you just have to be diligent. Watermarking your photos is a good start.

It happens quite a bit - 4 Bedroom Home for $800 a month...right. It is important that if anyone actually finds the specific scam posts on Craigslist to hit the REPORT button so that the post will be removed and no one else will be affected. Remember..if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

My house in Upper Marlboro, Maryland was fraudulently listed on forrentbyowner.com by an imposter from England. Two people were recently scammed out of $4400 total and both arrived at the property ready to move in. One of these victims got in an argument with the property manager. The sad part is that forrentbyowner.com won't remove the listing and it remains posted on their website today. What to do, what to do?

Very frustrating, Michael. If you haven't reported this to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center already -- http://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx -- that would be a good step to take.

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About Jamie Smith Hopkins
Jamie Smith Hopkins, a Baltimore Sun reporter since 1999, writes about the regional economy. Her reporting on the housing market has won national and local awards. Hopkins is a Columbia native and has lived in Maryland all her life, save for 10 months spent covering schools in Ames, Iowa.
She trained to become a wonk by spending large chunks of time as a geek and an insufferable know-it-all.
Baltimore Sun articles by Jamie
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