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Sellers Beware

Realtors Group Warns Of Rental Scams

The Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Board of Realtors is warning the public of a scam targeting homes listed for sale. The realtors group said information on homes are being used to advertise fake rental listings asking potential renters to wire first month’s rent and security deposit. P-J photo by Eric Tichy

An internet listing for a Jamestown home for rent was a deal too good to be true.

That much was evident for a local family who thought they had paid rent and security deposit on the newly listed property when they found themselves face-to-face with the home’s true owner.

“I think it’s a horrible situation for everyone involved,” said Darcie McLachlan, executive officer for the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Board of Realtors.

The incident, which took place in mid-August, has highlighted the perils of renting via the internet and the headaches many Realtors face when selling a home.

The scam, McLachlan explained, is relatively simple: local homes are listed for sale on a central system accessible to real estate agents in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties. Those listings are then fed to multiple real estate websites. From there, scammers find the listings and steal photographs and basic information. That information is then posted to sites such as Craigslist, where scammers hope to bait those looking for a place to live.

A sign pictured in the window of a home for sale warning that a scam was detected on Craigslist. Submitted photo

“These individuals visit Craigslist and write their own rental advertisements using the real photographs,” McLachlan said. “They ask the prospective renters to send or wire money — in most instances security deposit and rent. In some instances, the members of the public looking for housing do send the money and intend to move in.”

“The new tenants are told just to break the locks and re-key the home and to discard the Realtor’s sign,” she continued.

In the August incident, the single-family home had been listed for sale while it sat vacant. A family found the property listed on Craigslist and contacted the scammer, thinking they had found a nice place to rent, McLachlan said. The scammer convinced the family to wire first month’s rent.

The family had been inside the property for a few days before the scam was uncovered. “The renters wired money to the scammer, removed the real estate sign (and) moved in to the home,” McLachlan said.

In another instance, a potential renter wired $1,400 to a scammer out of state.

“The trend that we are seeing is that they are targeting newer listings, which makes it difficult to deal with,” McLachlan said. “(Real estate agents) can post a new listing, and within five minutes they’re pulling the pictures and posting to Craigslist.”

The local Board of Realtors has made efforts to stop the scams. McLachlan said real estate agents try to alert the board when one of their listings appear on sites such as Craigslist. Some agents, McLachlan said, will periodically search the internet to locate possible scams involving their properties.

If located online, agents will report the rental scam to Craigslist. A Facebook group also was created to help agents stay in contact with one another and report suspicious activity.

From January to July 1, local agents reported eight scams to the board after finding their listings posted online as a rental. In July alone, an additional six scams were discovered. With two more since then, a total of 16 scams were reported this year.

“These are only the instances that are reported to the board office and therefore most likely just a snapshot,” McLachlan said. “Most we only knew about because the agents utilize the Facebook group of their peers to share the info and work together to get the listing removed or ‘prohibited’ from Craigslist.

Tammy Hess Schmitt, a real estate agent at Howard Hanna Holt in Fredonia, said she routinely looks through Craigslist posts for scams. As of recent, she said some listings will mention an “open house” that doesn’t exist, creating a “scary situation” for the people who own and live in the house they are trying to sell.

“We have all heard of the stories where it gets to the point when people pull up in the moving van and attempt to get into the house,” Hess Schmitt said. “They’ve lost that money.”

McLachlan said there are a few ways to spot a scam online. She said purported sellers will usually tell those looking at places to rent they are unavailable to show the property because they are out of town (or even the country). They also tell people not to call the realtor listed on signs in front of the property. Scammers will also require prospective renters to fill out forms “giving them all your information for possible identity theft.”

But one of the biggest red flags is that scam artists require rent and security deposit be paid through wire transfers.

“The Board of Realtors’ priority is to alert the public that this is going on in Chautauqua County and surrounding areas,” said Roberta Thompson, president of the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Board of Realtors. “We do not want our community members falling victim to these scams.”

According to a 2018 study by Apartment List, an online marketplace for apartments, 43.1% of renters reported encountering listings they believed were scams. The San Francisco-based site said half of the renters who came across the fraudulent listings made contact with someone before realizing it was a scam.

Still, it is believed 6.4% of renters lost money on a rental scam.

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