That rental sounds almost too good to be true? Prospective tenants must vet rental listings they find online to avoid becoming a victim of imposter landlords.
ORLANDO, Fla. – As technology makes communication and payment more accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world, scammers continue to find new ways to exploit that technology to part victims from their hard-earned money. One such scam comes from people posing as a homeowner seeking a tenant.
I’m always hesitant to describe a scam too specifically. Scammers don’t tend to fall in lockstep, where they all follow the exact same pattern. They tend to evolve and change a bit over time, and sometimes they even make puzzling mistakes. For example, I wrote an article about fake sellers last year. That issue continues to plague members, title agents, and property owners around the state.
I’ve heard a few different wrinkles to the scam in the past year, but the key pattern remains the same. Someone posing as an owner attempts to get a listing, a contract, and (if successful), a closing where they pocket funds for property they don’t own. They may supply a fraudulent identification, and they typically use the internet and telephone to communicate throughout the transaction. If they cover their digital tracks well enough, they can be extremely difficult for law enforcement to track down.
The main takeaway for members is to be vigilant and, most importantly, informed about how these scams are impacting people in their practice area. The great news is that I’ve heard from many members who, often in conjunction with title agents, spotted red flags and ensured a fraudulent seller didn’t get an undeserved payday at closing.
The cousin to this fake seller scam is the fake landlord scam. Similar to the fake seller scam, communication is almost always conducted using email or other online communication methods. However, there are some differences. While a fake seller often contacts a brokerage firm to get a listing, fake landlords tend to just post a “for rent by owner” ad on Craigslist, Zillow, Facebook Marketplace, or some other location that allows owners to advertise property for rent.
Another difference: By avoiding using the services of a closing agent or brokerage firm, the fake landlord can ask for funds directly from the prospective tenant victims, whether that’s via wire transfer, bitcoin, a payment app, or some other form of transfer.
These listings often have some red flags that wary tenants can spot. These may include a lower-than-market rent price, typos and grammatical mistakes, little to no screening of prospective tenants, pressure to send money quickly (deposit and/or advance rent), avoiding in-person meetings, or an inability to view the premises easily. Remember, these are just general trends, but if a prospective tenant spots one or more of these, they should carefully vet the person claiming to be the landlord.
If a property owner is a victim of a fake landlord scam, what can they do? They can take whatever information they have to local authorities, contact the platform where they saw the fake rental listing, and contact the Federal Trade Commission. If the victim is a tenant who already paid money, they can additionally check to see if paid funds are recoverable (sometimes not, but worth checking).
The antidote to scams is knowledge. The more people are aware of how these scams work, the better we all will be at minimizing loss. Be safe out there, and thank you for all you do every day to keep a careful eye on real estate transactions in your communities.
Joel Maxson is Associate General Counsel for Florida Realtors
Note: Information deemed accurate on date of publication
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