Rent fraud a metro Atlanta problem

As posted on September 1, 2011 on www.ajc.com

By Christopher Quinn
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Rent fraud is a common con game aimed at a new crop of potential marks thanks to the housing crisis and the Internet.

Scammers lift an ad from media such as Craigslist, Trulia.com or ajchomefinder.com, substitute fraudulent contact information and then place the ad on websites. They wait for renters to contact them, then try to steal identities or cash down payments made through untraceable wire transfers.

The scammers are frequently outside the U.S., and the crime is difficult to investigate or prosecute, said Gabby Beltran of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego.

She recently tried to help a Virginia soldier who wired a $1,800 deposit to a scammer. He probably will never recover the money or have the satisfaction of filing charges, she said.

It has become enough of a problem that it is talked about at real estate conferences, the Better Business Bureau has put out a warning, and online sites such as Trulia.com are changing the way they take ads for rental housing.

The scam has cropped up in Atlanta.

Auna Bell, laid off from her job as a business manager and looking for a new home for her family, saw an online ad for a rental house near Buckhead at $850 a month that seemed too good to be true.

It was.

Bell emailed the ad poster, "Beth Smith," who claimed she was an Atlanta executive who had been transferred to the United Kingdom. But the advertiser's over-eagerness, overseas contacts and the low price made Bell suspicious. She and her daughter researched online and found the real Beth Smith, a local real estate agent who actually was trying to rent out the house.

After calling the real Smith, the two figured out Bell's email correspondent was a fraud, trying to get Bell to fill out an online application, including personal information, and send a down payment.

"Thank God there was no exchange other than email," Bell said.

Smith said Bell's call is not the only one she has received from potential renters whose suspicions had been raised.

The scammer told those emailing her to go by the property and peek in the windows. People were still living there but would soon move out, she assured them.

The house is already rented, but people still are coming by, Smith said.

"My tenant has had seven different people come by, including one [Thursday] morning," she said.

Smith filed a report with the Atlanta police, but after talking to an officer was left frustrated that not much could be done.

A police spokesman said they are investigating but are not aware of an upward trend in this type fraud.

Other metro Atlanta real estate agents, investors and property managers said they also have experienced the scam recently.

Dustin Jenkins, who helps the Victory Group manage three apartment complexes, heard from potential renters earlier this year who saw fraudulent ads on Craigslist for his apartments. One man filled out a fraudulent application online, and Jenkins counseled him to put a freeze on his credit report. Jenkins then posted a notice on Craigslist that the ad was a fraud.

"They were exactly the ads I put up, but with a new email and no phone number," he said.

Online companies are taking steps to limit the fraud. Trulia.com took down 75 percent of its ads because of concerns some might be fraudulent. Now posters must provide a U.S. phone number. Trulia workers call the number to verify it, company spokesman Dan Shuman said.

Trulia and others are using technology to develop algorithms that can detect fraudulent postings, and Trulia is emailing each person who responds to an ad with a list of red flags for fraud, Shuman said.

"It very well could have been me," Bell said. "I think you just have to spend that extra time investigating what really is going on. I try to trust everybody until I have a reason not to."

Avoid being scammed

Know who you are dealing with before you provide personal information or give money. Research real estate agents at the Georgia Real Estate Commission website, www.grec.state.ga.us/clsweb/realestate.aspx, or do online searches for agents' names and phone numbers.

If dealing with a homeowner, you can verify ownership online at most county tax assessors office websites. Ask to see identification.

Never wire money or fill out online forms until you have verified the person or company.

Visit the property before renting and talk to the tenant or neighbors. If the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.