Imagine a recently renovated 1,600-square-foot home on the west end of Owensboro with a garage and workshop renting for $550 a month.
Utilities included, no less.
Dogs and cats are welcome.
Appliances are furnished.
Does that sound too good to be true?
That’s a current listing on Craigslist, and it’s a rental scam.
At least one Owensboro resident, who asked to remain anonymous, fell for it last week. He lost $1,500 — a security deposit and first and last month’s rent — by sending money through Zelle before viewing the property, signing a lease or meeting the fraudulent landlord.
Through a series of text messages, the scam artist posed as the homeowner, who reportedly had moved to Texas. The keys to the house were in Texas, too, but were promised to be sent by FedEx overnight — after the $1,500 was received.
The keys never came, and the imaginary FedEx tracking number mysteriously went missing after the first day.
Several other locals might have been swindled by the same scammer, but they drove by to check out the house. That’s when they noticed a Farmer’s House Real Estate sign in the front yard that read: For Sale.
During the first couple of days the bogus rental appeared on Craigslist, up to 10 people called Brad Cecil, a Realtor at Farmer’s House and the property’s listing agent. They asked whether the house was for rent or for sale.
Cecil was quick to tell them the home was not for rent; it is for sale only.
It’s not the first time he’s been through this. Craigslist rental scams have been going on for about five years, Cecil said.
“They’re getting a little more sophisticated about it,” Cecil said.
Some scammers scour obituaries or public property records for information, he said. They use familiar-sounding names to make it seem as though they know people in the area.
It’s easy to copy and repost online photos and descriptions from legitimate real estate listings, making phony rentals look as honest as any.
But, as crafty as these swindlers are, some telltale signs give them away pretty quickly.
Red flagsBetsy Garant, Realtor and property manager at Rose Realty, said scammers have copied her firm’s rentals and posted them as their own on Craigslist.
When she finds out a listing is part of a scam, she reports it to Craigslist.
Garant gives some tips for spotting bad actors:
If the deal is too good to be true, that’s the first clue people may be dealing with internet fraud.
“We do not rent to anyone sight unseen,” she said.
Also, professional property managers never keep prospective tenants from viewing properties.
Property management companies do not ask for money before would-be tenants have seen the rental property and know they want it, Garant said.
Legitimate property managers ask for proof of income and work. They run credit reports and require applications.
If someone acting as a landlord says bad credit and prior felony convictions don’t matter, it’s likely a scam.
Finally, con artists often have some far-fetched story that sets up roadblocks to renting the property through well-established rental practices, Garant said. “(The rental) always comes with a runaround.”
The M-I posed as a prospective tenant on the Craigslist home on the west side of Owensboro that reportedly was listed for rent at $550 a month.
The reporter could not talk to anyone. All communication was done by text and email.
When the reporter asked to view the home, the reply was: “Like I said in my previous email am out of state, but I can send you pictures of the interior.”
When pressed for the keys to view the house, the scammer wrote: “I don’t trust anyone with my keys. I don’t trust anyone with my house. But I can ship the keys and document to you once you are chosen as the tenant. Through FedEx next day delivery.”
The reporter asked how tenants are selected.
The reply: Tenants must send a $500 security deposit “so we can know you are serious about the house.”
Craigslist offers an “Avoid Scams” link on its website.
“Deal locally, face-to-face — follow this one rule and avoid 99% of scam attempts,” the link reads.
Other tips include never submit payments to people without meeting them first, beware of any offers involving shipping and never wire funds through Western Union.
Any message asking people to access or check Craigslist voicemails is fraudulent, the company’s website reports. “No such service exists.”
Owensboro Police Department had two reports of online rental scams in 2019 and two so far this year, said Andrew Boggess, public information officer.
Of the four, one was on Craigslist, two were on Facebook and the other was HousesForRent.ws.
Last year, a total of $500 was lost, OPD records show.
No money was lost in the two scams reported to the police department this year, Boggess said. (The M-I’s source who lost $1,500 last week had not yet filed a report by the time OPD searched its records.)
“But many don’t get reported to us,” Boggess said. “Some may get reported to the Attorney General’s Office, the FBI — Internet Crimes Complaint Center (or) another agency like Daviess County Sheriff Department or Kentucky State Police. And some never get reported to law enforcement. … Unfortunately, I know there are many that never get reported.”
DCSD officials said the department did not have any reports of internet rental scams during the past few years.
The Kentucky Attorney General’s Office did not respond to requests for information by deadline.
Karen Gross, president of the Greater Owensboro Realtors Association, is a Realtor with Century 21 Partners.
In the past, internet frauds have stolen her houses listed for sale and posted them as fake rentals in an effort to scam the public.
“I would get call after call after call,” Gross said of tenants eager to land a too-good-to-be-true deal.
Instead of going it alone, Gross recommends using a professional property management firm.
“Going through a professional is your best bet … ,” she said.
For tenants who don’t go that route, a good rule of thumb is to meet in person with any potential landlord, Gross said.