After finishing graduate school in California and landing her first job in the nation’s capital, Alissa had a plan: Find an apartment before she moved across the country.
So she did what thousands of renters do in the hunt for the perfect home: She searched online, where she found a one bedroom in Mount Vernon Triangle for $1,600 a month. After researching the man who said he was managing the property — Barak Sky, a Bethesda Realtor with a five-star reputation — she wired him $3,200 in July to secure the apartment.
There’s just one problem: It wasn’t really him.
Alissa, who asked News4 not to use her last name, is among the latest victims of ever-evolving online rental schemes — a problem that recently prompted the District of Columbia’s attorney general to issue a new warning to potential renters before they lose money.
“It’s gone forever,” Alissa said of the funds she wired to apparent scammers. “If I didn’t have the family support that I do, I don’t know what I would do right now. “
The real Barak Sky says fraudsters have been impersonating him online to bilk would-be renters out of thousands of dollars. A News4 I-Team investigation found the schemes are so elaborate, they even include fake documents purportedly from the D.C. Housing Authority in an attempt to steal money from unwitting consumers.
Sky, who specializes in high-end sales — not rentals — said the majority of people who contact him about the fake listings typically find them on Craigslist. The scheme takes many forms, but most often, scammers steal pictures from a past real estate sale and instead call it a rental, with a price just below market rate. In other cases, they may copy a Realtor or broker's rental listing and sub in their own contact information.
Sky said, in his case, the scammers use email addresses which include his name and even text his photo to potential renters to try to persuade them with his credentials.
"I'm sure if they're using my information, they probably have 10 other people they're doing this to," he said, adding, "Scammers are getting so savvy. So savvy."
Several would-be renters told News4 the fake agent would come up with excuses for why they couldn’t see the property in person before moving in, while urging them to “secure” the rental with a deposit.
The scammer said the same to the I-Team, which inquired about a one bedroom in Dupont Circle posted by the fake Barak Sky. The I-Team also received an email from firstname.lastname@example.org with details on how to save even more money by paying several months of rent in advance.
The scammer also sent a fake lease but with a real routing and bank account number for wiring payments.
The News4 I-Team tracked down the owner of that condo, Joe Bircher, who said the unit is definitely not up for rent, adding that scammers have repeatedly used pictures from his 2017 sale to perpetuate the fraud on Craigslist.
"I don’t know what you really can do because when you flag it, it seems to go right back up,” he said.
Craigslist did not respond to a request for comment.
Hard to Track
More than 5.2 million U.S. renters say they've lost money to rental fraud, according to a July report from the website ApartmentList. One in three said they lost more than $1,000. Young renters are more likely to be victims of rental fraud, according to the report.
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine says his office has seen an uptick in complaints, but the real number of victims is unknown because people who are the “victim of fraud are ashamed by it and keep it to themselves."
This type of cybercrime is notoriously difficult to track because police often tell the victims to report the crime in the city where they live — not where they’re moving to, and scammers routinely change bank accounts and contact information before authorities can find them. Several people told the News4 I-Team that, after reporting crimes to police, authorities did not take the complaint seriously or indicated it's rare to recoup the lost funds.
In one instance, a woman interviewed by News4 said she wired $4,700 to a man she believed was Barak Sky. Her bank later traced the funds to the United Bank for Africa in Nigeria.
Racine encourages people to report the crimes but acknowledged, “The reality is that tracking the ultimate source when we get into the international organizations is incredibly difficult.”
Renters should use a credit card, which offers more protection, and never wire money to secure a rental unit, he advised.
“Once that wire is sent, your money is gone,” Racine said.
Alissa, who has since found an apartment, said D.C. transplants like her are especially vulnerable because they are often unable to see a property before moving to the District. In her case, she wired money to two different people, believing the deposits were refundable, before realizing she had been duped.
"It's a blow to your pride because everybody wants to think they're smart enough not to get scammed," she said. "I was finishing up graduate school and got scammed twice. It's not just stupid people — I hope."
She and others interviewed by News4 said, after sending money to the fake Barak Sky, the scammer tried to get them to send even more money using far-fetched and fraudulent advisories from the D.C. Housing Authority.
Emails show the scammers impersonated various Housing Authority executives citing "a change in policy" which suddenly required long-term leases be paid in full, up front. None of the victims interviewed by News4 complied with that request.
In a statement to the I-Team, the D.C. Housing Authority called the scheme “deplorable” and stressed DCHA “never requires its customers to pay anything when securing a new unit.” It’s now working with local and federal authorities to “stop this scam from spreading” and encouraged people who encounter this type of fraud to report it to police.
Rental fraud red flags:
The property manager will not allow you to see the property before paying money or pressures you to "secure" the unit with a deposit before seeing it.
The property manager asks you to wire money — something experts agree is a warning sign.
The listing has a watermark, such as MRIS or MLS, which may indicate the photos were pulled from a sales listing.
The price seems too good to be true, or is noticeably cheaper than properties with similar attributes.
The owner of the property does not match property records or the landlord doesn't want to meet in person.
Contact information for the Realtor listed on the property does not match his or her professional website.
Where to report it:
Call your bank. While it's rare to recoup the lost funds, it's not impossible.
File a police report with the department located in the city from which you wired the funds.
Contact the attorney general for the District of Columbia's Consumer Protection hotline at (202) 442-9828 or file a complaint online.
Report it to the Federal Trade Commission.
Full statement from the D.C. Housing Authority:
"Taking advantage of residents of D.C., where the need for affordable housing is so great, is beyond deplorable. The District of Columbia Housing Authority did not create or distribute the document brought to our attention by NBC. DCHA never requires its customers to pay anything when securing a new unit.
"DCHA is working with both local and federal law enforcement to stop this scam from spreading.
"To the residents of the D.C. area looking for affordable housing, please do not respond to this type of advertisement and discourage anyone else from providing any information or money to questionable advertisements. Instead, call the police."
Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Katie Leslie, and shot and edited by Steve Jones and Jeff Piper.