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Don’t get gotten: How to avoid even high tech rental scams

Candace Keene, who currently lives in an apartment in the Edgewater community area, came across a rental scam while searching for her next place. At first she believed the surprisingly low cost of the rental, but an additional price cut made her wary. (Carolyn Variano/Chicago Tribune)

A few weeks ago, Candace Keene believed she’d struck gold in the rental market.

The 31-year-old senior recruiter for a marketing agency spotted a three-bedroom, single-family home in the Andersonville neighborhood listed on Craigslist for $1,800 per month — about $1,000 less than she expected to pay.

"My thought was, ‘Wow, this is a great deal,’" Keene said of the rental. "’Maybe it hasn’t been on the market for a while, or maybe they don’t know what the market is.’"

She acted fast, shooting off an email to the listing agent, but didn’t receive an immediate response.

A week passed. Then Keene received a late-evening text that said, "Hello Candace, how are you?"

The texter offered her the unit for $1,500 — $300 less than the original ad — with an $800 deposit, which prompted Keene to do some digging.

An online search revealed that the phone number of the "landlord" originated from Google Voice or Skype. Keene then looked up the home’s address and stumbled upon the real kicker: The home was listed elsewhere on the market for $550,000.

"I knew it was too good to be true," said Keene, who is renting in Chicago’s Edgewater area. Her lease expires in November.

Scams like these are common, especially during the summer months, when it’s peak rental season. And scammers are getting more clever, so it’s harder than ever to discern a real rental advertisement from a fraud, said Nina Furseth, statistical data analyst with RentHop, an apartment listing website based in New York.

"We receive notice of up to 200 failed scam attempts per week on our site alone," Furseth said.

According to a 2016 study by researchers at New York University, the University of Maryland and Cornell University, Craigslist failed to flag more than half of the scam rental listings posted on its site. Many of those listings lingered for almost a full day before being removed, researchers found. During a five-month period, researchers analyzed more than 2 million Craigslist rental listings; they detected approximately 29,000 fraudulent listings in 20 major cities.

The most common con was a credit report scam. Here’s how a typical one works: A scammer lists a fraudulent ad for property the scammer doesn’t even own, and when a prospective renter responds, asks him or her to click a link to obtain his or her credit score. Upon clicking, the consumer is directed to a credit score site with a referral ID. If the consumer pays for the report with a credit card, the scammer receives a commission.

A January 2017 press release from the Federal Trade Commission outlined a related ruse, in which scammers pretended to be property owners and prompted would-be renters to get free credit reports from certain websites before touring the rental. Those purportedly free sites actually enrolled consumers in a credit monitoring service with a $29.94 monthly charge, which many consumers failed to notice for several billing cycles. The FTC leveled charges against a credit reporting company and three individuals involved in the scheme.

Another popular swindle is the one that nearly snagged Keene: the cloned listing con. In this one, scammers make money through a wired rent deposit.

Broker Greg Jaroszewski, with Gagliardo Realty Associates in River Forest, is rather familiar with that scam.

Shortly after listing a four-bedroom Oak Park rental for $4,000 per month in 2015, Jaroszewski began fielding calls from confused prospective tenants who said they found an identical listing on Trulia — but offered at a steep discount of $1,200.

Someone had "cloned and hijacked all the listing information with the contact information," Jaroszewski says, and then "swapped the phone number."

When Jaroszewski contacted the police, they told him that in a different yet similar situation, hackers were taking such a scam one step further by breaking into the home, changing the lock and actually showing the empty rental as if it were theirs.

"Rental scams are becoming more advanced and difficult to detect," said Damon McCoy, co-author of the rental scam study and assistant professor of computer science and engineering at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. "The saying goes that there’s a sucker born every minute. This is true, but it is also the case that the scammers are becoming more clever at extracting money from their marks."

Still, McCoy said, there are ways to avoid getting scammed, even if it’s a sophisticated ploy.

First and foremost: Never, ever send money or provide your credit card information before seeing the property, he said. Secondly, if the rent seems too cheap to be true, it’s probably a scam.

Dan Daugherty, founder and CEO of Colorado-based Rentbits, a rental search platform, said to be aware of the following red flags when contacting the listing agent via email: broken English and grammar mistakes; the use of "God bless," "reverend" or "doctor" (these words and phrases are used to build your trust); or the request for a money order or a cashier’s check.

Always look up the property’s address online to see if it’s listed somewhere else at the market rate, Daugherty suggested. Also, Google the email address of the agent to see if anything fishy appears.

Email addresses from Outlook are 19 times more likely to be a scam than those from Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail — and those from non-United States accounts for properties in the U.S. are almost always scams, according to RentHop. The website also urges renters to be wary of overly flexible term: If the ad says rentals ranging from one month to a full year are acceptable, it’s likely a fake.

If all checks out, you see the property and love it and the price is right, never deal in cash, said Renee Porter, an Illinois broker associate with Weichert Realtors.

"You want a paper trail," Porter said. "Even when you have an apartment, you want to pay in something that’s traceable and trackable — if you’re being pressured to give a cash deposit, it’s a red flag."

When scouring the market for a rental, take your time — and take care. If you fork over cash or wire money and it turns out to be a fraudulent rental, retrieving those funds may be a lost cause, Daugherty said.

While renters can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, "most of these scammers are outside of the United States," he cautioned, "which makes it virtually impossible to get the money back."

Danielle Braff is a freelance writer.

ctc-realestate@chicagotribune.com

Searching for a rental? Take these 6 steps

Verify that the property for rent is legitimate. Make sure that the management company exists (it should have a website with the company’s own domain name), or that the landlord is the owner and has the permission to rent the property. Don’t be afraid to ask for paperwork to back up the rental, said Nancy Simmons, founder of Apartment Detectives, an apartment search and corporate housing service based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Get it in writing. Spell out any agreements you make with the landlord or management company in writing. This could include anything from a pet clause to language allowing you to add a bidet to the bathroom, said Greg Jaroszewski, an Illinois real estate broker with Gagliardo Realty Associates.

Shoot a video to show the condition of the unit. Walk through the unit with the landlord — just like you would inspect a rental car with the sales agent — and note any damage so you can be sure there will be no misunderstandings regarding the security deposit when you move, Jaroszewski said.

Try it all. Turn on the showers to test the water pressure, check the air conditioner and the stove. Make sure all work and are acceptable, Jaroszewski said.

Review the crime statistics for your street. Before you move in, search local websites for crime data (www.crimereports.com, www.spotcrime.com and www.neighborhoodscout.com are a few resources), Jaroszewski said. Ask the landlords what you can expect if there’s a break-in: How quickly will they replace the locks? Will they provide an alarm system or motion detector lights?

Drive by the home at different times. Pay attention to action on the street and in the neighborhood. Visit during the week and on the weekends, said Renee Porter, broker associate with Weichert Realtors in Illinois. Try to talk with neighbors about what it’s like to live in the building. Porter suggested asking, "Are other tenants respectful? Is the landlord responsive to issues and calls?"

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