COLUMBUS (TNS) — Last month, Natalie and David Buckholdt were searching for a home to rent in Lima, where David was being transferred.
The young Grove City couple saw a Craigslist notice for a renovated three-bedroom house in a nice neighborhood for $800 a month. It seemed like the perfect place, so Natalie contacted the landlord.
“He gave this whole spiel about how he’s leaving on a mission trip to build schools in Africa,” Natalie recalled. “And then he provided a questionnaire for me to fill out, which looked like a general application to rent some place.”
But what happened after she returned the questionnaire gave her pause.
“He sent me an email saying, ‘Your application was approved. All you have to do is wire me $800, and I will overnight you the keys,’” Natalie said.
Suspicious, Buckholt searched the address online and discovered that the home was actually for sale. She contacted the real-estate agent listing the property and learned the truth: Someone was posing as the landlord to scam deposit money from prospective tenants.
That scam, which has been lurking around the real-estate world for years, is as alive as ever, say experts. With demand for rentals high and good units hard to find, crooks are lifting real-estate listings from the web and posting them elsewhere — often on Craigslist — as rentals, in the hopes of stealing renters’ deposit money.
“This sort of thing keeps happening,” said Marque Bressler, spokeswoman for the Columbus Realtors trade association, which has posted warnings about the practice.
The scam is so prevalent that Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine issued a statement on June 30 warning consumers about the schemes.
“Scam artists will say, ‘You send us the money, and we’ll send you the keys,’ but that’s a lie,” DeWine said in the statement. “The truth is these con artists are offering properties they don’t own and hoping people will take the bait.”
Most of the 46 rent-scam complaints received by DeWine’s office this year follow a pattern. They come either from tenants such as the Buckholdts reporting a suspicious “landlord,” or from landlords and real-estate agents who report that someone is masquerading as a landlord for one of their properties.
Dublin real-estate agent Lisa Trimner knows the fraud all too well. She said four of the homes she has listed in the past six months have shown up on Craigslist as “rentals.” Adding insult to injury, the rental ads use her photos and descriptions.
“It’s the same scam,” Trimner said. “They use the exact information in the listing, and say, ‘Send me $500, and we’ll send you the keys.’”
Trimner now checks her listings after they go up. If they appear fraudulently on Craigslist as rentals, she contacts the service and has them removed.
Crooks might have targeted Trimner’s listings because, as flipped investor homes, they were clearly unoccupied. Other homes that appear to be targets are low-cost ones. Such properties cater to residents who might have a hard time qualifying for higher-end homes and are more desperate to find a place.
Grove City real-estate agent and property manager Donny Thompson, who oversees about 600 rental properties in central Ohio, said the scams are far more common on less-expensive homes.
“I have a lot of lower-income properties, below $700 a month. That’s where they thrive,” he said.
Thompson said that when he met new tenants at a home he rented out a few years ago, another family who had been taken in by a scam showed up with a U-Haul. He had to tell them they had been defrauded.
“It devastated them,” he said. “They were planning to move in.”
A year ago, Lewis Center real-estate agent Alan Jones discovered a victim who had moved in.
When Jones went to show a prospective buyer a home that Jones was listing in Linden, he discovered that someone was living there. The occupant said he had paid a “landlord” $1,500 in cash to rent the home.
“Yeah, that was quite a surprise,” said Jones, who thinks a contractor who had keys to the home played the trick.
The homeowner allowed the occupant to remain, although the tenant soon fell behind on rent and had to be evicted.
Thompson got so frustrated by fraud that a few weeks ago, he sought to turn the tables on the crooks. After taking a call from a woman seeking to rent one of his apartments that wasn’t available, Thompson got the phone number of the “landlord.” He posed as a prospective tenant in the hopes of meeting the man at a rental.
The man didn’t take the bait, but Thompson thinks he got the last laugh by posting the phone number on social-media outlets.
“I sent him a text and said, ‘Here’s my address, come and visit me,’” Thompson said. “So far, he hasn’t taken me up on it.”
Real-estate experts and consumer advocates say that to avoid being scammed, renters should be wary of:
•Requests to wire money or to pay in advance with money orders.
•Landlords who say they can’t meet at the property because they are out of town.
•Properties that are listed as rentals but show up elsewhere as being for sale or listed by another party.
•Landlords who offer to rent immediately, without a background check.
•Properties that are offered for rent well below the market average.
Contact Jim Weiker at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JimWeiker.