If you're in the market to rent a home, beware of the "deals" you find on Craigslist. There's a chance you could get ripped off.
We first wrote about this problem about two years ago. A man who was trying to sell his late mother's house started getting calls from people wanting to rent it. They'd seen the rental listing on Craigslist.
It turns out someone had lifted a real estate agent's online ad for the house and republished it on Craigslist, offering to rent the home. The tale was that the owner was a missionary who was now in England. He would send the house keys to the first person who wired him a deposit and rent.
Apparently the problem hasn't gone away – it is growing.
Local Realtor Cindy Griffin-Malone had it happen with one of her listings not long ago. She learned about it when a couple sent her an email asking about a Craigslist listing she had never posted.
Meanwhile, Griffin-Malone got a call from her son who was interested in a rental offered online at a bargain price in Indianapolis. After investigating, she discovered it was a scam.
Tug Pierson, a RE/MAX agent, said last August someone lifted one of his online listings and keeps posting it online over and over again. Pierson said he'd gotten about 10 calls from people curious about the listing. Assuming only one in five bothered to contact him, Pierson figures dozens of others might have seen the same bogus listing, and he has no way of knowing whether any of them were defrauded.
Dave Donnelly, who rents homes, has had the worst experience of the three. He listed seven rentals on Craigslist, and three of his ads were hijacked and relisted by people offering lower rent and asking that people wire a deposit and advance rent.
The scam often involves claims that the real estate agent handling the property had recently been fired, so people should ignore any sign in front of the house and not bother to call that agent. They should instead deal with the owner through email. Scammers also like to claim they are out of the country working as missionaries.
In Donnelly's case, he knows of two people who were taken in by the scam and lost money, but he suspects several others might have been taken but weren't willing to admit it.
Donnelly actually had one person call to say he was at the house with a truck of furniture wanting to get in.
In another case, someone approached him as he was working on a rental property and told him, "We finally get to meet."
The man, who Donnelly had never seen, had been corresponding with a scam artist who had hijacked Donnelly's ad for the house.
If his properties have been targeted so many times, Donnelly says, there could be hundreds of similar scams going on involving hundreds of properties in the city.
Donnelly has called the police half a dozen times about the scams, but he says he was called back only once by a woman who said she only investigated cases involving child pornography.
"There's nowhere to go for help," Donnelly said.
Griffin-Malone says she had no control over scams that are taking place on the Internet and there is no way to stop it.
The only solution is to educate people about the online scams and teach them how to, and how not to, rent a property.
For example, all three said, no one should ever rent a property that they haven't been shown by the owner or a real estate agent. They should never agree to wire deposits or rent payments to a supposed owner, and they should be wary of supposed owners who claim to be overseas.
If there is a sign in front of a property, people who are interested in renting it should always call the number on the sign.
People should also beware of unusually low rents offered in postings.
That's the sad part of online scams. There is practically no way to trace them, and once a victim has parted with their money, there is no way to recover it.