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'It's rampant': Housing scam targeting renters during competitive housing market

The scam takes information and photos from a real house for sale, and claims it is for rent. The scammer then takes money and personal information from the renter.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich — A scam is targeting renters looking to lease a single-family home in the current competitive housing market. 

It works like this: The scammer steals photos and information from a real house for sale, then creates a fake online ad for the house for rent. Then, the scammer communicates primarily online, where they request money for first and last months rent and personal information. 

"The person who is truly looking for a first time home or looking to rent an apartment or single-family home," said Julie Rietberg, CEO of the Greater Regional Alliance of Realtors (GRAR), "they’ll probably be drawn to an ad like this because there is so little available."

Rietberg said the scam has been around for years, and comes and goes in waves. However, right now, it is "rampant."

The false ad is typically on websites like Craigslist, Zillow or other listings. It may seem fairly credible, including property details and interior and exterior photos. Often, the ad will indicate the owner or landlord is out of town, and prompt the potential renter to communicate by email or text.

"As we’re sitting here today, I’m betting there’s at least two or three on Craigslist in West Michigan as we speak," said Rietberg. "There’s seldom none."

In fact, during the interview, she and another worker at GRAR spent a few minutes looking through current single-family homes for rent on Craigslist. It did not take long to find one on the first page that is listed for sale on GRAR, and likely a scam. 

There are some tips for renters to avoid being scammed:

  1. Search the address or other identifying factors online to see if the house is listed for sale elsewhere. GRAR has a search engine for that on their website.
  2. Never give money or personal information to someone you have never spoken to offline. 
  3.  Keep your guard up while looking at rental ads. Some may have different area codes outside the region to contact, the address may be missing, or there could be no exterior shots. These are some possible red flags. 
  4. Drive by the property if possible to look for a "for sale" sign in the yard. 

Some tips for realtors, sellers or landlords:

  1. Put a "not currently available for rent" addition to the "for sale" sign and in the online listing.
  2. Set up a Google alert for the address and other identifying factors.  
  3. Notify the website if the property was found connected to a fake ad. 
  4. Submit an online claim to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center and to the FTC. 

"Sellers are frustrated because they want their house online, where a lot of buyers are finding it," said Rietberg, "but it subjects them to that possible scam."

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