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."

The Utah divisions of Consumer Protection and Real Estate have received complaints from real estate sales agents, potential renters and property managers about this scam taking place on classified websites in Utah. Some of the common elements found in these fake rental ads were:

• Poorly written ads ... as if someone used a translation program to generate the language in the ad.

• The property could not be inspected or shown in person because the “landlord” in charge of renting the property claims to be in another state or country for work or is serving a mission.

• The telephone numbers listed in the ads or emails are for out of state numbers, or are international numbers. Also, the names used in the ads have used prior property owners as the contact person.

• The person claiming to have authority to rent the property requests a deposit via wire transfer.

“Consumers should carefully consider any rental property situation before handing over information or money, whether as a landlord or as a renter,” said Deanna Devey, communications director for the Utah Association of Realtors.

“Be on your guard for situations that seem too good to be true like a low deposit or rent as well as for situations where a landlord wants money wired without showing you the house."

The Division of Consumer Protection suggested that consumers avoid sending any money unless the recipient is a trusted and known source. The public is also is reminded to never give out personal account information, social security numbers or other identifying information to unknown sources.

Visit www.consumerprotection.utah.gov for more information.

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Info Box

Below is the actual listing for the property the Lynnea Hamatake found online.

Hi,

Thanks for mailing me regarding the house are still available, but now I'm on a business trip to West Africa. I run a small construction company and I won a contract here and which is going long before we finished. I came over here with my wife and we decided to stay here for few years because we like it here and its warm, We wanted to sell the house my wife advised me not to sell the house. So I contacted the realty handling the house back and requested for my keys and papers. We would have given the same agent this job, but want to rent the house out ourselves and I do not have anyone in the area I can leave the keys behind with. If you notice the price we are offering is far below normal price and I this is enough for you to know that we are not after the rental fee but the entire care for the property. I know there is no way we can be sure that you are the right person to live in the house because we would not be able to meet physically before sending you the keys and the documents to occupy the property. The property is available for as long as you want and if you drive by the house you may see a sign there, you have nothing to worry about it belongs to my former realty so you don't have to call them because they do not have access to the house anymore.

 Air Conditioner Dishwasher  Walk-in Closet Refrigerator  Vaulted Ceilings Washer/Dryer Cable etc.

Please if you are ready now to occupy the house kindly provide the information below for record purpose

PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF

Full Name__________________________________________________ Home Phone ( ) ________________________

Date of Birth_________________________________

Other Phone ( ) ___________________

Current Address_______________________________Apt#________ City__________________ State______ Zip________

Reasons for Leaving____________________________Rent $__________Phone ( ) ____________________________

Are you married____________________________

How many people will be living in the house____________________________

Do you have a pet____________________________

Do you have a car____________________________

Occupation____________________________

Move In Date____________________________

P.S: YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO VIEW THE INTERIOR PART OF THE HOUSE BECAUSE I HAVE THE KEYS HERE WITH ME BUT I CAN SEND YOU PICTURES.

E-mail: jlee@desnews.com

Twitter: JasenLee1

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