WMBF News Investigates: Rental Rip-offs
MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Reports of rental rip-offs associated with Craigslist have surfaced. Thieves try to rent homes they don't own, leaving renters out a lot of money. It appears criminals have extended their reach to other home sites.
WMBF News investigated and spoke with a couple who went to the website Zillow for their dream rental.
The Eaves discussed the near-nightmare, which could save you thousands of dollars.
The family of four thought they were moving into a Little River rental. Parents Sharon and Phillip Eaves were looking forward to a welcoming rental.
"It was a really nice house, nice neighborhood, low price, I think that's just what baited it," Phillip recalled.
The couple found it near the end of June. From the beginning, they noticed something odd in the email and text messages from the person offering to rent it.
"He was saying he was in the military, but he wasn't talking that talk, like I did when I was in the military," Phillip said. "Plus, he was never available to speak by phone."
Sharon said she was also skeptical of the post.
"He said I'll call you as soon as you get out of the meeting, which we never got the phone call," she said. "And couldn't meet until after they made the wire transfer deposit, which also didn't add up."
Then, the supposed owner gave the couple a name and address to a financial consultant. The pair did their homework and found out the address doesn't exist.
Then, there was the quick approval on the overly-simple rental application.
The couple decided to check things out for themselves. They decided to go by the house, which the alleged owner obliged.
"He goes, if you'd like to see the house go by, look in the windows, I'm sure you're gonna be very happy with what the house looks like," Sharon said.
When they arrived at the house, they met the renter who was preparing to move out.
"[The renter] kept saying it was a woman that owns the house, Sharon explained.
A woman, not the man they'd been speaking to, and she told them the home was actually rented through Coldwell Banker Chicora.
Not a first
Rod Smith serves as the director of general brokerage with Coldwell Banker Chicora, which has a service that finds renters for homeowners. Smith confirmed the Eaves nearly got ripped off by someone who lifted the pictures of the home from a valid listing, possibly his.
Smith says he's already seen a dozen rip-off attempts like this so far this year.
"Sometimes it's the owner calling us and telling us there's a problem," Smith began to explain. "We've never seen the [websites] Zilllow and the Trulia involved in this before, this is a first."
Smith said it seems like a rash of false ads have happened recently. One manager had three calls, just this past weekend on one property, according to Smith.
People are losing more than pride on the rip-offs; some end up losing hard earned cash.
In one case, renters were actually told by the supposed owner that the key had been lost, assuring the renters it was okay to call a locksmith and change the locks.
The family moved in, and when a legitimate tenant then went to move in, the family was already living there. The police were called, and the misled renters were forced to leave the premises within 24 hours.
Another incident involved a lady, who had just come off welfare, Smith recalled. She saved some money, and the place was for her and her daughter to live. It was her last $1,200 - $600 for rent and $600 for the deposit.
"It's heartbreaking to think that somebody would go through that," Smith said.
Research and Homework
Luckily, the Eaves did their homework.
"I texted [the supposed owner], let him know I knew exactly what he was up to, I spoke to Chicora," Sharon exclaimed.
"I thought it was pretty shameful that he's for one, impersonating military, and two, trying to take money away from people. I suggested that he get a real job," she elaborated.
As far as Zillow, Sharon said she was upset with the well-known website.
"Zillow is supposed to be a good reputable place, but they're not doing their background checks," she explained.
So, should Zillow, or these websites, be held more accountable? Is there anything the banks could do to give them more mandates or screening techniques?
"Certainly as a realtor, I would like to see those websites handle it better, I just don't think that their business model is set up to do that," Smith said.
Regarding the other websites, since non-realtors are involved, there really is no recourse, other than calling the FBI, which is limited in what it can do, Smith explained.
Most of the thieves are outside the country, making it difficult for authorities to track the crimes.
How to avoid getting duped
Smith recommends people contact local real estate companies, even if they just want a second set of eyes on a contract.
"There's actually a footer on that document and if you Google that, it says that it's a scam," Smith advised.
Smith recommends renters look on a national website.
"I'd encourage them to look at something like realtor.com, that's a national website and it's updated every hour.
"Craigslist, Zillow, Trulia -- no offense to them -- but their data can be weeks or sometimes months out of date," Smith said.
The truth is, these websites may not even be supervised, and could be illegitimate.
The home located on Knoll Drive that the Eaves were looking to rent, actually rents out for $1,150, not $600, as it was advertised.
"If it doesn't feel right, it's not. Follow your gut, that's the biggest thing - if something doesn't sit easy with you, it never hurts to do a little bit of research," Sharon confessed.
Since the investigation, the couple and Smith are working with authorities to try and track down the person on the other end of those text messages and emails.
WMBF News reached out to a Zilllow representative who confirms that listing is no longer active. The representative said a series of fraud alerts can be seen on their website.
"In all of our site communications, we encourage anyone who comes across any suspicious use of the Zillow name or site activity to report it to email@example.com."
In addition, the FBI is requesting individuals who have similar complaints to file an internet crime complaint on www.ic3.gov with the FBI to ensure the extent of this scheme can be accurately evaluated.
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