What’s wrong with people? Beware rental scams.

In my latest installment of “What’s wrong with people?” I shall revisit the popular rental scam.

Rental scams are nothing new. We began seeing them on Craigslist years ago. This is how it goes. Some despicable person, one who presumably finds that holding down a real job or otherwise being a productive member of society is just too much trouble, decides to instead steal. They find a home for sale online, and they pirate the photos and text. Next they find the name of the owner in public records and set up a bogus email account that might suggest they are the owner, something like [email protected]. (My apologies to Mr. Jones if this is, in fact, his real email address. Just in case, let’s refrain from sending him messages this morning like “Kris wrote about you on her blog, you scum bucket!”)

Then, and this is the really good part, they take this home for sale and post it as a too-good-to-be-true rental. The monthly rent is always something exceptionally enticing like, say, five dollars — including utilities. When contacted, the “owner” will usually say that they live out of the country but will arrange for a friend to show it when they get a deposit. They will always ask for payment by cashier’s check or wire transfer.

Alert would-be renter Christina forwarded this email she received from one such pond scummy person on one of our listings:

Hello,

My home is still available for rent, We are renting this home to a responsible and neat individual or family who will treat the house as his or her own. Well,Our house has been put up for sale until my wife advised me to put it out for rent. My home has 4 Bedrooms 3 full, 1 partial Bathrooms , while the size is 2,425 sqft. I am asking $1,300 while the refundable security deposit is $1,300. Pets are also allowed. How soon are you willing to move in if we finalize arrangements with you now?

At least he blamed his wife and didn’t kill me off. Unfortunately, Josh Taylor, a Tennessee agent, met a untimely virtual death.

Last week, two of our own listings were scraped for fun and profit. In one case, our client found himself arguing with the showing agent, an agent who had seen both our online listing and the bogus rental listing on the same site (Trulia) and insisted that her client could lease the place if he wanted. The Internets don’t lie!

In the second instance, my client found a highway patrolman at his door. An upstanding citizen who neither speeds nor knocks off banks in his spare time, he was a little taken aback, until he realized that the police officer was just looking for a place to rent – for five dollars a month.

The thing about the rental scammers is that they are evolving. Where we used to only have to worry about Craigslist, now they use listing syndication services to victimize across multiple sites. In the case of our recent evil-doers, Postlets (powered by Zillow) was their syndication service of choice. In Zillow’s defense (Did I just say that?), they swiftly pulled the listings once I reported them as fraudulent. But I simply don’t have the time to police all of our listings every day, and these rental listings will likely reemerge tomorrow under new phoney accounts.

Phoenix guy, Jay Thompson, had a fabulously funny exchange with a rental scammer. I filed that one under “Things I wish I had thought of,” but the reality is I am too lazy to set up a non-traceable email account. I’m glad Jay is around to do my dirty work.

The reach afforded by our online world is a double-edged sword. It is both glorious and an opportunity for abuse, which I suppose describes most wonderful things in life – like those little white chocolate sugar cookies they sell at Trader Joe’s. So, please, use a little common sense when doing your online rental shopping. Only deal with folks you meet in person, people who will show you the big ticket item before demanding you commit. Never send cash or the equivalent. And always do a little cross-checking to confirm that the listing agent is really dead before pulling your own trigger.

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