Some consumers using Craigslist classified ads to find bargain rentals are getting a nasty surprise. Phony landlords are collecting security deposits and first month's rent. When the renter shows up ready to move in, they find their new keys don't work or that the property is occupied.
Thanks to a blogger named Trench Reynolds, these stories are being collected on Craigscrimelist.org , with links to the original media reports for verification.
The scams are happening all over the country from Covina, California, to Austin, Texas, to Annapolis, Maryland.
In Austin, a man named Timothy Alonzo Nero is accused of cheating at least five victims out of rent money. He allegedly posts ads for sub-lease rentals on Craigslist, using information from legitimate rentals being marketed by real estate agents on Craigslist. Although he has been identified, he is still at large.
In Annapolis, a real estate agent found that her rental listing on Craigslist had been hijacked and changed with new contact information. Prospective renters avoided being scammed when they refused to pay the phony landlord upfront before being allowed to inspect the property.
One property in Covina has been leased to about 50 different renters, but in this case, it is the owner who is allegedly scamming the public. Pardeep Singh is taking the rent money, but leaving the renters homeless. According to reports, he has defrauded renters out of as much as $120,000, and police have not yet located him.
All it takes is fake business cards and a little acting ability. Mr. Nero was convincing as a real estate agent, said victims, although he's never had a license to practice from the Texas Real Estate Commission. He even had obtained a key to one of the properties for lease.
The rise of rental fraud is yet another effect of the housing bust. There are a lot of accidental landlords out there, as well as properties being rented by third-parties. That makes it harder to know if you're renting a legitimate home or not. Here are a few ways to do your own due diligence.
- Is the agent real? Contact the agent and ask for his/her state license number. Confirm the agent's license at ARELLO.org, the website of licensing officials. Ask to meet the agent at his or her office before viewing the property.
- Is the landlord real? If you're renting from a homeowner, check property records to make sure the landlord and owner's names match. Visit the property and don't be shy about asking neighbors for information about the home and the landlord. Contact law enforcement and community sites to see if there have been any complaints filed against the landlord.
- Is the property real? If the rental is being marketed by a real estate agent, look for the listing on other local and national real estate sites. Ask the agent for comparables (yes, they are available for rentals, too) so you'll know you're paying fair market value per square foot for the location. Your state real estate commission should also have a standard rental agreement for you to download and compare against the lease the agent wants you to sign.
Don't hand over any money before inspecting the home you want to lease. Make certain that the apartment or building covenants allow sub-letting, if that's the kind of lease you want to do. Ask for a copy of the apartment or building rules. A legitimate landlord will have standard leases and rules handy for you.
If you don't want to do all that, you can always hire your own agent to find a rental and do the due diligence for you.