Rental scams

Real estate agent Rusty Miller pictured outside a home on Kolb Avenue that was listed by a scammer as a rental property, when Miller was the listing agent to sell the home. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / October 1, 2012)

Online listings offered the Northeast Baltimore home for rent at a bargain price. The problem? It's not for rent — it's for sale. And the owners had nothing to do with those ads.

This sort of scam proliferates on websites and in rental advertisers, perpetrated by con artists who want to separate renters from their security deposits.

Real estate agent Rusty Miller, who represents the owners of the Cedmont home, said his office has fielded more than 100 calls and emails in the past 11/2 months from people interested in renting it — and who fortunately did enough poking around to find his name.

"So many people said, 'It's too good to be true, but I had to check it out,' " said Miller, with Betsher & Associates Realtors.

The rental market is fertile ground for scammers. Judging by reports to the federal Internet Crime Complaint Center, many of the rental cons these days target tenants.

That's a shift from previous years, when criminals more frequently went after landlords — by sending checks for more than the agreed-upon amount and then asking to have the overpayment wired back, for instance. The checks were fake, but landlords often didn't get a heads-up from the bank until after they sent the money.

The switch in targets could reflect the changed rental market, which was rough for landlords during the recession but now is much tighter. Scamming is a "whatever works" occupation.

"At the end of the day, cybercriminals are opportunists," said FBI spokeswoman Jenny Shearer.

When scammers pose as landlords, they might find a house whose real owners have advertised it for sale or rent. The scammer lifts the photos, places his own listing on sites such as Craigslist, and tells those who inquire that he needs to rent the home out because he's moved far away. The monthly rent? Temptingly low. He can't send keys until he has the security deposit, you understand, but you can drive by and look in the windows to see how nice the place is.

No one knows exactly how many rental-related scams are baited each year, let alone how many people are victimized, because not all are reported — or reported to the same place. But the problem doesn't seem to be on the wane.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center said it has had nearly 7,400 complaints this year through Oct. 1 that include the word "rental," up from 7,200 in all of last year and about 6,000 the year before. That doesn't count all the center's scam-rent complaints, because thousands of people used the terms "apartment" or "rent" in their missives rather than "rental."

Craigslist cites rent scams as one of the cons to watch out for on its classified advertising site. Its advice to users: Deal only with people you can meet personally — many scammers are overseas — and never rent a home without seeing the inside.

Nadege Conger, who founded 12 years ago, said scam volume keeps increasing. She said she spends a lot of time fending off bad guys.

The California-based website, which caters primarily to academics worldwide looking to lease a place and rent their own home out while on sabbatical, puts every message aimed at members through a filter for suspicious language. A staff member then looks at the flagged messages.

But even the sharpest eyes or algorithm can't catch every scam in its opening salvo. The con artists' emails — once littered with bizarre grammar and word use — are improving.

"They're more sophisticated," Conger said. "They're getting better and better at it."

And they're not always long-distance. Renee L. Beck discovered that to her chagrin in 2008., when she and her husband were looking to move near downtown Baltimore.

It started with a Craigslist ad. The $780-a-month rent seemed like a good deal but not low enough to raise her suspicions, given that the place was the size of a studio apartment on the third floor of a rowhouse.

The "landlord" showed them around. The Becks loved the Federal Hill location. They paid the man one month's rent as a security deposit, got the keys from him and tried to move in — which was when they discovered that another renter also was moving in.