Beware the pernicious rental scam

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.
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)

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 SabbaticalHomes.com 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.

"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.