My son is not renting his Boston condo, though you may see it listed for rent on Craigslist. Yesterday, an astute woman searching for an apartment in the city spotted the scam ad and contacted my son. It turns out his is one of many properties featured in a common real estate scam.
“When the woman was asked to wire money to a routing number, she became suspicious,” he told me. “She found my name as the owner of public record and reached out to me on Facebook to find out if the ad was legit, and that’s how we discovered the scam. It’s a little unnerving.”
The pictures on Craigslist were not of my son’s condo, but they were similar enough to pass as his. The scammer told the interested woman that an elderly couple would be moving out of the condo at the end of July, and she could see the property then. The scammer said the woman could wire him money to hold the property until she could see it.
A quick search of this scam shows that it is a pretty common in real estate, especially in cities or tourist areas where the market is tight. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), scammers post fake ads for rental properties, often using photos taken from other ads.
“Some scammers hijack a real rental or real estate listing by changing the email address or other information, and placing the modified ad on another site,” reports the FTC. “Other rip-off artists make up listings for places that aren’t for rent or don’t exist, and try to lure you in with the promise of low rent or great amenities.”
Scammers have been known to use owners’ names in bogus email addresses to make the contact information seem legitimate.
Like the woman who contacted the scammer, follow your instincts if you feel that something doesn’t seem right about the information you are getting for a rental property. Some common red flags of this kind of scam include:
- The advertised rental price seems too good to be true.
- The ad includes odd spelling and grammar.
- The landlord is not able to meet with you. The scammer may say that “they’re out of the country and can only communicate via email,” notes a report on Realtor.com. Some scammers claim to be agents for an unavailable owner.
- The landlord instructs you to send money before seeing the property. You might be asked to send a deposit to a P.O. box or wire funds. They may “tell you that the key is hidden on the property, or they’ll send you the code to the door once they have your funds,” warns Realtor.com.
- The landlord pressures you to decide quickly before someone else gets “the deal.”
If you suspect that a rental offer is a fraud, do a search of the property owner. Reach out to verify the information, as the woman who was being scammed reached out to my son. And never wire funds. Doing so is the same as sending cash, so you have no way to recoup that money.
If you know of a rental property scam, organizations like USA.gov and the FTC recommend that you report it to your local law enforcement agency. Other places to report the crime are to the FTC, the publication where you found the fraudulent ad, your state consumer protection or attorney general’s office, and the local Board of Realtors.
Old lessons still hold true: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Do your homework before turning over money to someone you have never met for a property you have never seen.