Beware! Criminals attempting to steal from potential renters using rental scams on Craigslist, Zillow and Trulia is a huge problem in the Tampa Bay area right now.

The scammers scrape the content of legitimate rental advertisements off the Internet and then create their own advertisements using the same photos and descriptions, but with different contact information. Usually they advertise a lower rent of 60 – 80% of the legitimate rent which of course generates a lot of  interested prospective tenants. When someone contacts them about renting the property they have a story to cover-up their scam:

  1. They are out of town or the country on Missionary Work
  2. They just fired their real estate agent as they priced the rental too high, so ignore their sign in the front yard; they have taken over the marketing the home themselves.

Sometimes they are local and break into the property and leave the back door unlocked. Sometimes they even change the locks.

Usually they are out-of-state or overseas and they ask the prospect to visit the property and look in the windows (we know that because someone contacted us last year who was instructed to drive-by and look in the windows, only problem was when they got to the property they realized it was on the 11th floor of a condo tower and called our office when they realized it was a scam). Another method is to get the prospect to view the property with a real estate agent or using the real estate agents lockbox system but to only follow-up with them if they like the property as they will offer them a much lower rent if the agent isn’t involved.

Whatever the story, the end result is to get the prospect to wire them funds for the rent and/or deposit. Once this happens the victim will never hear from them again and the money is lost.

There are some heartbreaking stories of families moving into their dream home thinking they have a lease only to find out they have been scammed and having to vacate after losing all their savings. It’s just horrible.

What can you do to if you are a landlord and what can you do if you are a tenant about this?

If you are a landlord the best thing you can do is to get your property rent-ready (well maintained, looking good and clean). Then price it right as soon as you put it on the market. If your property is rent-ready and priced right it will rent quickly and avoid vacancy. The longer a property is sitting vacant the more opportunity for criminal to use your property to scam people.

Visit your property regularly to look for signs of forced entry or doors and windows being left unlocked. I visited a vacant property we managed last year and found my keys didnt work. Someone had gained entry to the property and changed the locks. I immediately called our locksmith who changed the locks. An hour later my office received an angry call from a young couple attempting to move-in to the property as their key would not work. Unfortunately their mother had wired money to Africa and they thought they had a lease. Fortunately we were able to work with them and the landlord and found a way to rent to them. In fact they just signed a new lease for a second term. So that story at least had a happy ending.

If you are a tenant the best thing you can do is NEVER EVER wire money to an out-of-state or out-of-country landlord.

Other things you can do:

If it seems like a really good deal, be suspicious. You heard the saying, “If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is”. Do a Google search on the address and look for other advertisements for the same property. If it is listed for rent with a real estate company at a higher rent, the lower rent price is probably a scam. If you find it listed for sale, contact the sales agent to find out why the property owner also has it listed for rent. It could be legitimate, but usually it will be a rental scam.

Don’t hand over money or your personal information unless you have researched the landlord or the real estate management company and know they are legitimate. I recommend physically delivering the security deposit to their offices to check them out. This way you make sure they exist and can even take a photo of the person who accepts your funds if you are still not sure.

Report the Incident to the FBIThe final thing that both landlords and tenants can do if money is stolen is to report the incident to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center.

I really hope this will help just one person not become the victim of this scam.

If you have any questions about rental scams or anything pertaining to property management in Tampa Bay, please contact us at Hoffman Realty.