A homeowner hears noise on the porch, and looks out to see a car in the driveway and behind it, a rental truck. A couple of people are trying to gain entry, some peering in the windows. Following a frantic call to 911 the police arrive only to learn the "perpetrators" they just handcuffed believe they are the rightful tenants of a house they paid a fat deposit to rent without ever setting foot inside. But the house is not available for rent -- it's actually for sale -- and the homeowner wasn't the person who received the electronically transferred deposit from the erstwhile tenants who viewed pirated photos of the property online and were scammed out of thousands of dollars in security and first month's rent deposits.
The already high demand for affordable housing, specifically rentals, has grown dramatically in the wake of Hurricane Florence. Displaced residents still seek temporary housing pending restoration of their homes. Hundreds of renters need alternative affordable arrangements, and they needed this yesterday. Need, when coupled with the increasing availability of online information, tempts people to bypass Realtors in favor of direct online research which, unfortunately, subjects them to victimization by someone intent on cheating, swindling, deceiving, tricking, duping, hoodooing another, known as scamming.
"Historically, scams have been the worst on Craigslist," says Meghan Riley, team administrator of the Cameron Team, part of Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage. "But since the hurricane, there has been an uptick on Facebook, especially within rental and sale groups. It happens most frequently with long-term rentals [more than 90 days]."
The increasingly popular Nextdoor app provides another platform for scammers. The property looks legitimate, but the scammer has copied and pasted photos of a legitimate listing to create a fake ad.
"Images are ripe for the picking," says Casey Roman, investigative reporter for WECT TV and documentary film producer. "Scammers are savvy; they right-click images from legitimate sites [like Zillow], then post them onto their own ads."
Rent scam scenarios follow similar patterns. First, prospective tenants conduct an online search via Craigslist or a similar service. When they respond to the ad, they might be contacted by an individual who claims to be out of town or otherwise unavailable to show the property. The contact might supply an address and invite the prospect to drive by for an exterior viewing.
If a request for an interior showing elicits a demand for an immediate advance deposit and/or the first month's rent by electronic transfer or any other means not requiring an in-person meeting, or if the contact requests Social Security or bank account numbers or other sensitive, personal information, do not proceed without first verifying the ad is legitimate.
How do you protect yourself in this day of the increasingly sophisticated thief? Before making contact, conduct some basic research to check for legitimacy. If local, drive through the neighborhood and look for inconsistencies. Are the advertised amenities in place? Confirm other details stated in the ad. Google the image to see if it matches the claimed address. "If you can't get the address from the ad for a simple drive-by, that is a major red flag," Roman says. Searching free real estate records online via the New Hanover County Tax Department and New Hanover County Register of Deeds will verify ownership. Both websites are user-friendly and require no specific legal knowledge.
Sellers are not immune to scammers using similar tactics to dupe individuals seeking rentals.
If you list your property for sale, and your home's image is pirated by a scammer, it may be used to create a fake rental ad. Would-be renters may drive by the property, and may even visit and peek into windows. If one suffers injury while on your property, you may potentially be liable.
There is no end to the creativity of the scammer who morphs tactics to prey upon others. If you are searching for property on the Internet, use caution and do your homework. If you are selling property online, watermark your images to deter piracy. Be vigilant.