How to avoid being a victim of a real estate or rental scam

The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have published a report about common real estate scams and rental scams they are finding and how to avoid them. Like most scams there are warning signs and red flags that can help you avoid falling victim; knowing what to look for is key.

The IC3 reminds people to be cautious when using the internet to either advertise real estate for sale or rent or to find a property to rent or buy.

For Landlords and Sellers of Property:

Look out for: Rental scams occur when the victim has property advertised and is contacted by an interested party. Once the rental price is agreed upon, the scammer sends a check for the deposit. The check covers housing expenses and is either written in excess of the amount required, with the scammer asking for the remainder to be remitted back, or for the correct amount, but the scammer backs out of the rental agreement and asks for a refund.

Because banks do not usually place a hold on the funds, the victim has immediate access to them and believes the check has cleared. In the end, the check is found to be counterfeit and the victim is held responsible by the bank for all losses.

For Renters and Home Buyers:

Look out for: The scammer duplicates postings from legitimate real estate sites, alters them, and reposts them. Often, the scammers use the broker’s real name to create a fake e-mail address, which gives the fraud more legitimacy. When the victim sends an e-mail through the website inquiring about the home, they receive a response from someone claiming to be the owner.

The “owner” typically says he and his wife are doing missionary work in a foreign country and need someone to rent their home while they are away. If the victim is interested, he or she is asked to send money to the “owner” in a foreign country. These funds go directly to the scammer, and the would-be renter loses his or her money.

Suggestions from the IC3 and FBI on how to protect yourself from schemes:

  • Do not accept overpayment for rental properties. If you receive a check that’s for more than the specified amount, return it. Do not deposit it.
  • Do not wire funds to people you do not know.
  • Verify potential renters’ income.
  • Request renters’ personal references and follow up with those individuals.
  • Check with your county recorder to learn who owns the property you’re seeking to rent.
  • Call the property manager or association, if applicable, and ask about the landlord.
  • Ask the landlord for a rental application. It’s a red flag if one is not available; most managed properties require an application.
  • Find out how much of a security deposit may be requested in your state. Scammers will often ask for extra money in the form of a deposit.

The following requests can be indicators of fraudulent activity:

  • The would-be tenant wants to rent or purchase the property sight unseen.
  • The potential tenant says he or she is out of the country and he or she would like to send you a cashier’s check.
  • The payment is for more than the agreed upon amount.
  • There’s an urgency to the entire process. For example, the tenant says he or she is arriving in the country next week and needs to establish residency right away.

If you feel you have been a victim of an Internet real estate scheme, you can file a complaint with the IC3 by clicking here.

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