Along with the Foot Fetish Creep (who is still around making phone calls) and the alleged open house thief (who was arrested and then released on bail), members and consumers have been dealing with fraudulent listings being posted on sites that allow anyone to post information on them. The most frequently reported are Craigslist and HotPads.com (to their credit, each site has been very responsive to remove fraudulent listings once they have been notified).
The scam usually goes something like this: information about a property that is actually actively listed for sale is posted on one of the sites as a lease at a significantly reduced monthly payment. (We are talking about a house that might have a monthly mortgage payment of $4,000 being posted as for lease at $1,300—what a great deal!!) The interested consumer will contact the “owner” via the site about the property. The “owner” will respond that they are out of the country on missionary work (most frequently in Africa but sometimes Asia or even just in a different city outside of the state). They tell the interested, prospective renter to drive by the house to see if they like it from the outside and that they will have to overnight the keys to them if they decide they want to lease the property. BUT the rental applicant will need to wire the first month’s rent and the deposit first. Who would do that? Apparently, a lot of people.
Just in the last month, HAR communications staff has fielded calls from various media outlets about this scam going on in Houston and members of the HAR board of directors have participated in five interviews that aired on TV or radio.
One of the tips that is often recommended to prospective renters is to look at the appraisal rolls to see who the owner is. Seems smart, right? The scammers are even smarter. In most situations, the scammer has also checked to see who the owner is and has registered an email address with that name (i.e. if the homeowner is John Doe, they will use firstname.lastname@example.org) so you think you are dealing with the actual homeowner since the names match. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to create and new, fictitious email address to help pull of the scheme.
Houston is not alone in being a target, as reports are coming from across the country of this same scam. The main things to remember are that if it sounds too good to be true, then it likely is. Also, don’t lease a property from someone who you have never met in person. What has tripped up many of these situations has been when the interested renter just knocked on the door of the house. They have found out very quickly that the listing was not legitimate.
As a REALTOR®, you should be aware that this is happening and set up a Google Alert to email you whenever the address of your property is found on the Internet. If you find that there is a fraudulent listing, notify the site immediately and then send an email to email@example.com so we can also follow up with a request to remove the listing since the sites sometimes act more quickly when an “official” source is making the request.
People assume that the criminals are obtaining the images and information for the listings from HAR.com, but it is also possible for them to have been obtained from any of the other sites where the listings appear. In the meantime, we will be investigating if there are any safeguards or measures that we could take that might help prevent this. Unfortunately, it is the age we live in and a sign of the times.