"He said, 'Well, I just signed a lease,' " Beck recalled. "We said, 'We just signed a lease, too.' You have this moment of, 'Oh, my God.' "

The guy who took their money was the apartment's former tenant. Beck called the police, but the scammer had disappeared.

"Now we sound a little bit over the top when we move places," Beck said.

She and her husband, Steve, check property tax records to see who owns the building. They asked the owner of their last rental to show a photo ID to make sure they weren't being given a false name. And they worked with a real estate agent to rent their current home in Baltimore's Riverside neighborhood "to have that extra sense of security."

Her advice to renters: If anything is the least bit odd, "don't rush into things."

Laura Tuthill, an "accidental landlord" who ended up with two homes in Baltimore to rent out, is equally cautious when she needs to fill a vacancy. She hasn't been scammed, but not for lack of trying on scammers' part.

Most struck her as obvious, thanks to mangled English and non sequiturs. The guy, for instance, who emailed about the room she was renting — and when she explained that, no, it was the entire house, "again asked about the room." She has a mental picture of "sweatshops in Indonesia or something" in which entry-level scammers work from prewritten scripts.

"Sometimes ... the very first reply is one of these scammers," Tuthill said. "So they're out there, working every day, looking for every new post."

And some are tricky to suss out. Tuthill said she received a rent request a few years ago from a woman who said she was leaving a hospital in England for a job at Johns Hopkins. Seemed legit. Then Tuthill discovered that the work area code the would-be renter gave her was for a part of England nowhere near the hospital. Thanks, but no thanks.

Miller, the real estate agent who was bombarded with questions about the "rental" his clients are trying to sell, said the calls started coming in soon after the home was listed Aug. 31. At first, he thought it was a mistake. Then the details came out.

Not just one scam. Two of them.

"At first, it was somebody in the UK and somebody in Nigeria ... and they were 'on missions,' " Miller said. "They play the religious angle, it seems like. And there was a guy [who] claimed to be a pastor who just got a new church, he's in Georgia now, and he's looking for God-fearing people who would rent his house. And he was telling people he couldn't get the key to them until he got the down payment."

Miller wondered if anyone was taken in. Hardly a day goes by that people don't show up to peek in the windows, he said — such is the lure of $1,200-a-month rent, utilities included, for a just-renovated house. (The owners posted a sign in one of the windows last month, warning that it's not for rent.)

And then there are the many who called and emailed.

"I made a point of calling everybody back," Miller said. " 'Look, it's a scam — please don't send anybody any money.' "



Rental scams

Rental scammers target both tenants and landlords. Here are some red flags:

Emails littered with misspellings and oddities. Many of the scams originate overseas. But scammers are getting savvier, so don't count on bad grammar.

No tour. When the "landlord" says he's not in the area and suggests you check the home out by peeking in the windows, that's a bad sign.

Doesn't add up. The "renter" keeps talking about your room for rent, even though it's an entire house. Or the "homeowner" renting his place out gives you a name that doesn't match the property records, which you can see online by going to http://www.dat.state.md.us/sdatweb/datanote.html

The price is too right. Scammers often lure tenants in with bargain-basement rent.

The check is too big. Some scam artists send oversize security deposits, then ask the landlord to wire back the difference. But the check is bogus.

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