Realtors say they have been caught in the middle of several scams involving their real estate listings and fraudsters using Craigslist to bilk money out of unsuspecting consumers.
Similar scams have been reported around the country for the past year, but local agents said the cyber ring hit Northwest Arkansas a few months back and continues.
Brian Dandy, agent with Crye-Leike in Fayetteville, said he recently had four to five phone calls on a listing that hadn’t seen any activity in several days.
“I was out of town, but when I returned the calls the next day I found people were inquiring about a rental ad they saw on Craigslist with information from one of my ‘For Sale’ listings,” Dandy said. "They had all driven by the house and seen my sign in the yard and called me.”
Dandy said he and other agents routinely use Craigslist and other online real estate sites to give property listings more exposure. But this was the first time one his listings was poached by scammers out to take money from strangers.
“These cyber scammers took down the ad quickly because they were basically fishing for information through a rental application and ultimately hoped that money would be wired for the deposit and first month's rent,” Dandy said.
The perpetrators took public information from Dandy’s listing and posted their own fictitious Craigslist ad.
Dandy said they were savvy enough to search county records to find the name of the property owner and then set up an email account in that name from which they sent correspondence to the consumers who wanted to rent the property.
“Not only that, but they were bold enough to call the few that sent in applications a day or so after emailing to follow up,” Dandy said.
The story used by the scam artists was that the family had to move out of state and needed to rent the house, since it hadn’t sold quickly enough. He said thankfully in this case, no one he spoke with had sent any money to the fraudsters with a Florida address.
Brian Adams, a broker over property management for Crye-Leike in Rogers, said his department has seen about 10 such scams involving Craigslist and rental properties. He said the scam is basically the same each time and very similar to the one described by Dandy.
“As soon as we detect the activity, we flag it so it can be taken down, but in a couple of days it’s back up.” Adams said.
He said one homeowner near Beaver Lake had his home listed for rent without his knowledge.
“When I contacted the homeowners to tell them their home was listed online, they told me the day before a family drove up in the yard, claiming to have rented it online from Craigslist,” Adams said.
Misti Stephens, a broker for the local Coldwell Bankers franchise in Siloam Springs, said she had a listing in Fayetteville show up ‘for rent’ on Craigslist, a while back.
“They story they told was to ignore the broker’s sign in the yard, because the homeowners had decided to rent the property themselves as they had been called to Africa on missionary work. They wanted the potential renters to wire money via Western Union,” Stephens said. “We turned it over to the proper authorities.”
She said by law, licensed agents are to required to list the company name on any advertisement for rental or sale of a property and if there is a sign in the yard that agent should be the first one contracted.
All three agents say the scams only work if consumers ignore a number of bells and whistles that should sound off as warnings:
• Being contacted by so-called owners out-of-state or outside the U.S.
• Being told to ignore a real estate sign of local agency.
• Being asked to wire money for a deposit without first signing a contract in person.
• Avoid deals too good to be true, as the scam rentals are typically grossly under-priced.
• Look out for bad grammar or use of phrasing that doesn’t make sense in correspondence.
• Avoid email only transactions.
• Never assume an email address validates one’s actual identity.
• When in doubt call a local agent with a known firm before proceeding.
Adams said with numerous vacant homes sitting in limbo across the region, consumers should be cautious that they too might show up as rental listings by cyber scammers.
He said there is host of public information available online from county real estate records to reputable sites like Zillow, Trulia and RealtyTrac that con artists can get to help them try and authenticate their ploy.
Real estate professionals urge all consumers to take notice of any empty homes in their neighborhoods with a sudden flurry of activity. They also said it’s not crazy for homeowners to routinely check sites like Craigslist and Zillow to keep tabs on their own property because now they never know who’s home might show up “For Rent”.