While looking online for somewhere to live, a woman from Owings Mills might have thought she hit the jackpot.
A small brick home listed on Craigslist in Baltimore County had a yard, was within walking distance of Mt. Pleasant Woods Park and a 10-minute drive from downtown Towson. She signed a contract with "Sarah Koster" of "S & K Reality LLC," paid a person named "Sam" $1,500 in cash to secure the home and moved in on Memorial Day, according to a Baltimore County police report.
A few days later, she heard a knock on the door. The homeowner was on the other side and had no idea who the woman inside the house was, or why she was there.
The homeowner had not put the house up for rent and noticed something was amiss when she saw blinds hanging in the house's windows.
The woman from Owings Mills had become the victim of a type of rental scam that is on the rise in Baltimore County, County Police Detective Cpl. John Wachter wrote in an email.
In June, when the Owings Mills incident occurred, police had seen "two or three" similar incidents in the past month, Wachter said. "This is up from last year," he added. One more case was reported as recently as Aug. 11. Wachter said Aug. 24 that police did not have readily available the total number of incidents that have occurred this year, compared to last year.
Neither "Sarah Koster" nor "S & K Reality LLC" existed, according to the police report filed on the matter June 3. The person whom the Owings Mills woman met to pay the deposit, "Sam," — who police described as a tall man of possibly mixed race with sandy brown dreadlocks — disappeared with no known address or last name.
"Sam," who is the main suspect in the case, is believed to have gained access to the home through a window in the basement, according to the report. He then changed the locks, making his own key to give to the victim. The home was vacant at the time. The Owings Mills woman was not charged with a crime because she was a victim of the scam, Wachter said. Still, she had to start her housing search anew.
Such fraud starts with a vacant foreclosed home or a property for sale, Wachter explained. Next, the fraudster breaks in and changes the locks to obtain a key to give to the "tenant." Soon after, a perfect-sounding ad appears on an online site offering rentals.
"The suspect collects the first and last month's rent, then disappears," Wachter wrote.
The suspects in the cases have not been found, according to Wachter.
Getting money back takes time
Det. Larry Rogers has investigated similar scams in Baltimore County for two years as a member of the Financial and Cyber Crimes team. This year, he has investigated similar crimes in Parkville, White Marsh and Overlea. Standing in front of a foreclosed home in Overlea, Rogers said three men each renting a room in the duplex were scammed out of nearly $5,000 after renting the house through an ad they found on Craigslist.
"They had written lease agreements," Rogers said. "They truly believed they rented the place."
In such cases, police try to work with the bank or the homeowner to negotiate letting the scam victim stay at the home until he or she finds somewhere else to go, Rogers said. In the case of the three men, he was able to negotiate a deal to allow them to stay in the house for at least 30 days until they found somewhere else to live. Having already lost money to the scammers, the victims did not pay rent for the additional time in which they stayed in the house.
"We're not heartless," Rogers said.
Without the assistance of police, the homeowner would have to go to court and file for an eviction notice, Rogers explained. He said that process often takes up to 30 days. As for the victims, retrieving their stolen deposit also depends on a judge's ruling.
"Getting money back immediately is difficult because of the court process," Rogers said. "It takes time."
If found guilty, the criminal would have to return the money if the court order includes restitution.
Dan Daugherty, CEO of Denver-based Rentbits.com, a marketing website that lists properties for rent, said that, compared to other scams, such as credit card fraud, rental scams take more effort on the part of the criminal. Stolen credit cards can be sold on online black markets almost immediately. Between creating a false ad and responding to potential victims, a rental scam takes longer, Daugherty said.
Daugherty said victims of rental scams often look past warning signs because they are emotionally invested in securing the home or apartment.
"This is because they have a fear of losing this 'great deal,' and if they don't act now they will pay a significantly higher rental rate with someone else," Daugherty wrote in an email.
Towson University Social Psychology Professor Geoffrey Munro has taught classes in persuasion, the technique scammers use to fool their victims. Munro said the emotional attachment for potential renters or homeowners starts as soon as they walk through the front door.
"Walking through a home, you're checking out what kind of heat it has or whatever," Munro said. "But you're also imagining your life there."
Scams rampant during housing downturn
Scams in which the victim moved into the property were common during the housing market collapse in 2008, when many homes were vacant, Daugherty said. Even though the housing market has rebounded and fewer houses are vacant, the FBI reported more than 10,000 real estate scams in 2013. The total estimated loss from these scams was $18.5 million, but Daugherty believes that number could be higher.
"Many of these crimes go unreported due to embarrassment or just not knowing who to report to," Daugherty wrote in an email.
The FBI'S annual cybercrime reports from 2012, 2013 and 2014 show women were victims almost twice as much as men in most age groups. Munro said he believes this statistic does not mean women are more likely to be victims, but instead men are less likely to report when they were scammed.
"It's like admitting defeat," Munro said.
"Most of these scammers come from Nigeria, or in some cases the UK," Daugherty wrote. "It is very difficult to prosecute or even find these criminals."
In March, researchers in the New York University Tandon School of Engineering published a study that found Craigslist had failed to identify more than half of scam rental listings. The study also found postings that were reported as suspicious would remain on the website for as long as 20 hours before they were removed. Craigslist has a page on its website warning people about scams. On the top of the page, the website states to always deal locally and face-to-face in rental transactions. The website also advises against wire transfers or renting a place that has not been seen.
Craigslist is often a top choice for scammers because it is popular and free for anyone to use, Daugherty said.
"Unlike Craigslist, most of these paid sites use technology and human intervention to detect these scammer ads before they go live on multiple rental sites," Daugherty wrote in an email.
Craigslist officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
To avoid becoming a victim of such scams, Wachter recommends renters verify online ads, especially if cash is involved. If a property owner does not ask for a background check or credit report, it could be a red flag. He also recommended property owners check on their vacant property or install an alarm system. If an owner sees their property listed in an advertisement without their permission, they should call the police, he said.