Hijacked Home Sales: Beware of Rental Scams

Spring is house-hunting season in the District, but would-be buyers and renters aren’t the only ones on the hunt. So are scammers.

Ninety-five percent of people shopping for houses scroll through ads on their cell phones and tablets, like Carla Pacalo.

"I wanted to get closer to the District to make my commute easier," she said. "It looked like a nice property form the pictures, but the rent was very low."

Things just didn't add up for a $1,900-a-month home in Arlington she inquired about.

"They wanted a security deposit as well as a first month's rent up front," she said. "I hadn't even seen the property."

Suspicious, she drove by the house and found a "for sale" sign out front. So she called the number and met realtor Warren Kluth.

"I just started telling people it's a scam," Kluth said. "It's not for rent."

Kluth said Pacalo wasn't the only person who reached out to him about the property. That's how he discovered a scammer had hijacked his real estate listing, copying the details but changing the contact information and posting it on another site as a rental.

"The fact that they went to the trouble to use the actual last name of the previous owner, with his deceased mother as the supposed owner, I thought that was pretty ballsy to be quite frank," said Kluth.

Four Red Flags

Jamie Coley of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors has seen this type of scam pick up speed.

"Can you imagine all the number of people probably that get sucked into this?" said Coley.

He said there are red flags to lookout for:

  • The houses are almost always listed with below-market rates.
  • The owner is often out of town and unable to show the property.
  • They likely only communicate via email or text.
  • They ask for money up front.

 Coley warned viewers, “Don't do anything with money until you have an actual contract or lease agreement."

Hard Lesson

David Jones learned that the hard way.

"We seen it advertised on Craigslist, a picture of it,” explained Jones.

At first, he was relieved to find what he thought was an affordable place for his family in Capitol Heights, Maryland, since their lease ended in April. So, he responded to the ad. But he said he didn't have the conversation in person.

“We're having it through text, via text and emails," he said.

Anxious to move in, Jones deposited $1,200 in the guy's bank account with a promise the keys would be shipped immediately.

“He never sent the keys," Jones said.

Who’s Behind the Rental Ads?

No one answered the door at the house Jones and his family hoped to be living in by now. The I-Team tracked the person behind the rental ad to a home in Georgia. He did not respond to emails or calls.

You should always visit rental properties in person, Coley said. You can also call a realtor to make sure the property advertisement is legitimate. Coley also suggested doing some online digging yourself.

“You can go online to check the tax bills to see who actually owns the property," he said.

The FBI has advice on how to avoid being the victim of a rental scam.

If you’ve been the victim of a rental scam, you should file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.

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