In today's hot rental market, an online scam can rob a potential tenant of hundreds or thousands of dollars.
These insidious scams play out a number of ways, but the aim is to lure consumers with the promise of extra-low rent or no credit check, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Some scammers hijack a bona fide rental or real estate listing by changing the email address or other contact information, and placing the modified ad on a different website.
"Other rip-off artists make up listings for places that aren't for rent or don't exist, and try to lure you in with the promise of extra low rent," the FTC said. "Their goal is to get your money before you find out."
In a number of recent cases, scammers have taken information from real estate ads in newspapers — and also scanned photos of houses for sale — and posted classified ads on Craigslist.com that have persuaded potential renters to hand over money, the agency said.
Often, the so-called landlords will say that they're out of the country for a job or missionary work, but that they have a plan to get the house keys to you, the FTC said.
"It might involve a lawyer or 'agent' working on their behalf," the agency said. "Some scammers even create fake keys."
Law enforcement officials don't have statistics to indicate how widespread rental scams are. The scams are hard to track because the scammers usually don't use a business name, Better Business Bureau officials said.
But real estate agents said they've run across the scams, especially in recent years.
"We've seen so much of it the last two years," said Kathy Gordon, risk mitigation and compliance director at Keller Williams Realty Dallas Preston Road. "Over the last couple of years, I've seen it numerous times. It's usually reported by an agent that 'My listing is showing up on Craigslist and the lease price is substantially less.'"
Justin Burt of Frisco, Texas, fell victim to a scam this month.
Burt, who owns an auto mechanic shop, was searching for a house to rent. He responded to an ad on Craigslist for a 1,600-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath home renting for $800 a month.
"They gave me a story about how they traveled around Africa and South America, that they needed someone to take care of the house," Burt said. "That's why the house was so cheap."
After Burt filled out an application, the scammers emailed him and told him "the house was mine" but said he needed to wire a $500 deposit to Nigeria.
"So I sent the money," Burt said. "The next day, I get a phone call from Nigeria, and he was telling me that I needed to send the first month's rent to get the key."
That made Burt suspicious, so he drove by the house and discovered that the home had already been rented.
He called the real estate agent who handled the leasing and discovered that the ad on Craigslist was a scam.
Not only was the home already rented, but the rent was $1,350 a month, not the $800 that the Craigslist ad said.
What's more, the scammers had hijacked the name of the homeowner and used her name in their email address.
Burt called the scammer in Nigeria and confronted him.
"He hung up on me," Burt said. "The next day, he called me and said, 'When can you send the first month's rent?' and I said, 'I'm not going to send you the first month's rent until I can get a key to the house and I can see it, and we'll go from there.'"
The scammer said he would send the key to Burt but never did.
"That was the last I heard of it," he said.
Burt advises fellow renters to "do as much research on anything that you get before you actually send money."
In his case, "$500 is a lot of money, but it could have been a lot worse," he said. "It could have been $1,300."
Craigslist spokeswoman Susan MacTavish Best said the company "goes to great lengths to prevent scams from reaching users, employing a wide array of technological and staff measures to suppress scam attempts."
Yip writes for the Dallas Morning News/McClatchy.