Bal­ti­more County po­lice warn of on­line rental scams

Non-own­ers fool­ing peo­ple into rent­ing va­cant houses

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Maya Earls and Sarah Gantz

An­gel Shep­pard had big plans to spruce up the fore­closed Tow­son home she bought in June, but right af­ter buy­ing the place Shep­pard no­ticed some­one had al­ready started mak­ing her new house a home.

There was an air con­di­tioner in the win­dow and the blinds were down.

“It made me a lit­tle un­easy,” Shep­pard re­called. “I hadn’t even moved in yet.”

Shep­pard called her real es­tate agent, and the two knocked on the door. A young woman with two chil­dren had been liv­ing there for nearly a week, but it turns out she was the vic­tim of a rental scam. Some­one claim­ing to rep­re­sent the owner rented it to her for $1,500 cash.

Bal­ti­more County po­lice have seen a hand­ful of sim­i­lar in­ci­dents in Parkville, White Marsh and Over­lea, one re­ported as re­cently as Aug. 11. Neigh­bor­ing po­lice depart­ments said they hadn’t re­ceived sim­i­lar re­ports — but rental scams are noth­ing new. And as the ways to rent pro­lif­er­ate, so do the ways to scam.

Na­tion­ally, rental and real es­tate scams rose 11 per­cent over the past two years, to 11,562 vic­tims in 2015 from 10,384 vic­tims in

2013, ac­cord­ing to the FBI’s an­nual In­ter­net Crime Re­port, which is based on data collected through the In­ter­net Crime Com­plaint Cen­ter. The cat­e­gory also in­cludes real es­tate in­vest­ment fraud; scams in­volv­ing home mort­gages, re­fi­nanc­ing, short sales and fore­clo­sures; and prop­erty in­volved in money laun­der­ing, such as a grow house.

Last year, 222 Mary­lan­ders were vic­tims of such scams, at a cost of $657,500. Na­tion­ally, real es­tate and rental scams cost vic­tims $41.4 mil­lion in 2015.

“Peo­ple just need to re­ally be cau­tious and dili­gent about their re­search,” said Anita Davis, the pres­i­dent-elect of the Greater Bal­ti­more Board of Re­al­tors. “They’re pub­lish­ing phone num­bers, they’re an­swer­ing the phone.”

Davis, an as­so­ciate bro­ker for Long and Fos­ter who works in Bal­ti­more County, re­called one time, six or seven years ago, when a client’s for-sale home popped up on Craigslist as a rental.

The home­owner, Davis’ client, took mat­ters into his own hands and re­sponded to the ad, talked to a man who said he was a mis­sion­ary on as­sign­ment in a for­eign coun­try. He’d send the key once he re­ceived a $700 de­posit in the mail.

Davis’ client con­fronted him, “and then there was a click on the other end of the line,” Davis said.

In an­other in­ci­dent, a few years ago, the scam­mer made up an email ad­dress us­ing the owner’s name, to fool any prospec­tive renters dili­gent enough to check the prop­erty record, she said.

The rise of va­ca­tion rental sites, most no­tably Airbnb, has added to the ways renters can be scammed.

Airbnb renters have lost hun­dreds of dol­lars — and had va­ca­tion plans ru­ined — by pay­ing out­side the rental web­site’s se­cure on­line sys­tem, book­ing prop­er­ties that don’t ex­ist or ac­ci­den­tally click­ing over to a scam­mer’s web­site that is a near-mirror im­age of the le­git­i­mate one. Other va­ca­tion rental web­sites, such as HomeAway, also have been sub­ject to scams.

On its web­site, Airbnb ad­vises renters to read list­ings care­fully and strike up a con­ver­sa­tion with po­ten­tial hosts, to es­tab­lish clear ex­pec­ta­tions for the stay and get a bet­ter sense of whether any­thing seems off. Airbnb en­cour­ages users to com­mu­ni­cate and pay only through the web­site, and warns against personal email cor­re­spon­dence and wire trans­fers.

Craigslist, too, has a page on its web­site warn­ing peo­ple about scams and of­fer­ing ad­vice about how to avoid be­ing vic­tim­ized: Stick to lo­cal deals, in­sist on face-to-face trans­ac­tions, say no to wire trans­fers and don’t rent a place you haven’t seen.

Still, too of­ten vic­tims look past po­ten­tial red flags be­cause they are emo­tion­ally in­vested in se­cur­ing the home or apart­ment, said Dan Daugh­erty, CEO of Den­ver- based Rent­bits.com, a mar­ket­ing web­site that lists prop­er­ties for rent.

“They have a fear of los­ing this ‘great deal,’ and if they don’t act now they will pay a sig­nif­i­cantly higher rental rate with some­one else,” Daugh­erty wrote in an email.

In March, re­searchers in the New York Univer­sity Tan­don School of En­gi­neer­ing pub­lished a study that found Craigslist had failed to iden­tify more than half of scam rental list­ings. The study also found post­ings that were re­ported as sus­pi­cious would re­main on the web­site for as long as 20 hours be­fore they were re­moved. Craigslist of­fi­cials did not re­spond to mul­ti­ple re­quests for com­ment.

Mean­while, jus­tice can be elu­sive for both renters and home­own­ers.

Po­lice try to work with the home­owner or bank, if the prop­erty is bank-owned, to ne­go­ti­ate a deal for vic­tims to stay at the home un­til they find some­where else to go, said Det. Larry Rogers, who has been in­ves­ti­gat­ing rental scams in Bal­ti­more County.

In one case, Rogers helped ne­go­ti­ate a deal to al­low three men who un­wit­tingly rented a fore­closed du­plex to stay there for 30 days, un­til they found some­where else to live. Hav­ing al­ready lost nearly $5,000 to scam­mers, the vic­tims did not have to pay rent for the ad­di­tional time they stayed at house.

Renters who want their money back must know who scammed them and go to court.

“Get­ting money back im­me­di­ately is dif­fi­cult be­cause of the court process,” Rogers said. “It takes time.”

With­out po­lice in­ter­ven­tion, home­own­ers deal­ing with renters who don’t want to leave also may­have­to­take their case to court and file for an evic­tion no­tice, a process that can take up to 30 days, Rogers said.

The woman in Shep­pard’s house didn’t put up a fight.

“She told me she had been scammed on Craigslist,” Shep­pard said. “Af­ter the po­lice came and I showed them my paper­work that I was the owner, she left.”

The woman told Bal­ti­more County po­lice she had re­sponded to a Craigslist rental ad­ver­tise­ment for the home, signed a con­tract with a “Sarah Kost­ner” of “S & K Re­al­ity LLC,” and paid a some­one named “Sam” $1,500 cash to move in Me­mo­rial Day

Nei­ther “Sarah Koster” nor “S & K Re­al­ity LLC” ex­isted, ac­cord­ing to the po­lice re­port filed on the mat­ter June 3. The per­son she paid the de­posit, “Sam,” dis­ap­peared with no known ad­dress or last name.

Po­lice be­lieve he’s their main sus­pect and that he broke into the home through a base­ment win­dow, changed the locks, made new keys and gave one to the vic­tim.

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