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Scammers targeting renters in online advertising

Published: Sunday, July 15 2012 4:47 p.m. MDT

Realtor Larry Larsen stands in front of a house that was fraudulently advertised for rent online by scammers in West Jordan on Friday, July 13, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When Lynnea Hamatake needed to locate a house to rent, she did what many people might do — peruse online ads for available properties. She felt pretty excited when she saw a listing for a place in West Jordan priced well below other comparable rentals, and emailed the contact listed in the ad.

After a more careful review of the online listing, she noticed some things that "raised red flags."

"(It) said, 'I have the keys with me … I won't be able to get them to you until you send me the deposit, then I'll mail you the keys,'" Hamatake said. "I just thought, 'Oh boy, that does not sound right.'"

She contacted a Realtor connected to the home, who told her that the listing was not correct.

"I haven't been in the rental market for a long time," Hamatake said. "This was my first experience … very shocking!"

She said the Realtor was helpful in contacting local authorities and explained that such scams are becoming more commonplace.

Here's how it works: Fraudsters target occupied or unoccupied listings, create an ad and urge the potential renter to avoid calling the agent. Sometimes they'll invite a potential target to drive by the home and see if they like it.  Then the "mail-me-a-portion-of-the-deposit pitch ensues, with the promise of a key.

Hamatake advises potential renters to beware.

"Never give money without meeting in person at the property," she said. "If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is."

Realtor Larry Larsen of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage said this kind of scam has occurred recently on this and other properties at his office.

"The prudent thing to do is call the Realtor (to verify) the listing," he said.

The Utah Department of Commerce announced Friday that both the Utah Division of Consumer Protection and Division of Real Estate had received reports regarding pirated listing information used by scammers to create fake rental property listings on popular online classified websites.

The fake rental ads advertised the real estate as available for rent and asked interested renters to wire money through a transfer service to obtain a key to the property.

According to a news release, the Division of Consumer Protection found that in most cases, the wired funds are not recoverable as the fraudster was located out of the country and the consumer did not discover the fraud until they showed up at the address and found it was not a legitimate rental property.

“Young people seeking rental properties need to be especially careful when searching housing ads online," warned Francine Giani, executive director of the state Department of Commerce. "Many have grown up with the internet and feel comfortable doing business without face-to-face interaction which can make them more vulnerable to these types of online scams.”

The general manager of Utah's largest online classified site, KSL.com, said site officials work hard to prevent fraudulent activity, but sometimes scammers make it past preventive measures.

"We have a moderation staff that goes through classifieds ... and try to remove that type of content," Brett Atkinson said. "(For) that type of fraudulent content, there is really not a lot that we can do. Users have to be aware of (signs) to look out for regarding scams or fraud."

He said the site includes resources to help users recognize possible fraud and what to do if they notice potential problems with an ad.

"It's common that people will target any type of Website that has a large user base." he said. "Whether it's somebody that is posting a home rental or somebody posting a dog they really don't have."

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