Housing rental fraudsters definitely have Fort Wayne residents in their crosshairs. Just ask Larry Kahn.
“I was exposed to a fake online listing last week,” he said at a Dec. 10 news conference that the Better Business Bureau Serving Northeast Indiana held at its Parnell Avenue office in Fort Wayne to review findings of a rental scams study.
“I found a listing on Craigslist, and it was a 1,300-square-foot, 3-bedroom home with two bathrooms. The security deposit was $275 and the rent was $275 a month. There was a phone number. I called it,” Kahn said.
The fraudster responded quickly and insisted on limiting their communication to text messaging. He said he worked as a consulting engineer for an international project and sent Kahn an application with very few questions.
When Kahn asked to see the house available on Riverton Drive in Fort Wayne, he was told other individuals were interested in it, and it would rent to the first party willing to make a MoneyGram payment on it.
“I said that I needed to see the house before sending any money. He told me that since he wasn’t in Fort Wayne, he couldn’t show me the house and I could go to look at the house through the windows,” Kahn said.
“Then he said he’d send me the keys by Fed-Ex if I paid the security deposit with a MoneyGram. And I thought, there’s something wrong with this.”
When Kahn visited the office of a real estate title company the next day to check on the ownership the house, he discovered it belonged to a California holding company.
Before long, he found it listed for rent in an advertisement with wording quite similar to what he had read in Craigslist, only with different contact information.
The real owner wanted $1,050 per month.
Whether you are looking to relocate or rent vacation housing, “when you find a listing for the perfect place at a good price, the last thing on your mind is ‘What if the rental’s a total fake.’ Not so for scammers,” said Marjorie Stephens, president and CEO for the regional BBB.
“They copy pictures and descriptions from other websites and put their own contact information in those fake listings. They might ask you to send money for a security deposit or (the) first month’s rent. Or they want you to pay for an online directory before you can see the place, or try to get you to pay for a credit score,” she said.
“We wish we could tell you that this is rare, but it’s not.”
The BBB’s Scam Tracker found 23 rental scams had taken place in Indiana during the last three years, including three in Fort Wayne.
A national survey by Apartment List found last year that 43% of respondents had encountered a fake listing, and 5.2 million people had been ripped off by a rental scam. Their losses averaged $400, but one in three victims had lost more than $1,000. Individuals in their 20s to 30s were most susceptible, Stephens said.
Vacation rentals are great opportunities for scammers because people can’t visit the property in person before traveling, “so the chances of finding a fake listing are significant,” she said. “Scammers even copy entire websites of real owners of vacation properties, so extra care is needed.”
Vacation rental platforms such as Airbnb, Homeaway.com, and Vacation Rental by Owner, or VRBO, provide a secure payment method and means of communicating with owners, but plenty of scammers are working to exploit them, Stephens said.
“For example, a scammer may try to post a vacation property and then offer the traveler a lower price if they go off the platform and deal with the owner directly,” she said.
“This sounds attractive, because it saves some money, but all protections are lost and travelers risk showing up at a place to find that they have no place to stay and have lost their money,” she said.
“The moral of all of this is to be careful, and do some research on the internet before renting an apartment, house, or vacation property. Make sure the location really exists at that address, and that you are dealing with the actual owner or property manager.”
The BBB encourages individuals posting units for rent to use watermarks on their photos to prevent scammers from copying and posting the same pictures.
It recommends reporting fraud to local police, the Federal Trade Commission and the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center in addition to its own Scam Tracker.
Brian Walker, a spokesman for the Indiana State Police at its Fort Wayne District Post 22, said individuals who have fallen for rental fraud should not feel bad about it because “these scammers are very good at what they do.”
When shopping for a rental, be thorough with research into the properties of interest and don’t give anyone personal information online that could be used for identity theft or other forms of fraud, he said.