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Realtors warn of online rental scams

November 12, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Want to live by the Pacific Ocean? In Marina del Rey, a two-bedroom condo can set you back $3,000 per month or more. One listing on Craigslist, however, shows one for just $840 per month, fully furnished with parking included.

Beverly Hills is one of the most expensive places to live in the entire nation, so one three-bedroom home described on Craigslist ad as a "beautifully, maintained, country-English" home looks like a screaming for $800 per month. In a different ad, another Beverly Hills property goes for $950, including utilities.

So how can this be?

Rafael Renderos, a realtor from Torrance, frequently comes across fraudulent lease and rental listings like one he found in Beverly Hills. The home leases for nearly $5,800 per month, about seven times the price listed on Craigslist. A scammer reposted pictures from the legitimate ad on Craigslist. The fake listing even included a warning that said "Avoid scams and fraud by dealing locally."

"Scammers, will go off of the MLS or any other site out there that is listing properties for lease," Renderos said. "They will just copy and paste the address, photos - and that's it."

When Renderos responded to the Craigslist ad, he received an email containing a rent application from a man who claims he's the property owner. The man said he works as the marketing manager of Shell petroleum in Nigeria. The man said was looking for responsible tenants to take care of his house because Shell transferred him to company headquarters in Nigeria for the next four years.

As with many scams, the letter asked for an upfront deposit of $1,000.

We found a listing for a home on a quiet, tree-lined street on Mount Olympus in the Hollywood Hills. Last year, the home sold for more than $1.1 million. On the realtor's website, it highlights a kitchen with granite countertops, designer bathroom and lush pool. However, on Craigslist there's an ad for the very same home with the same pictures, but not the same price.

"The actual rent on this property is about $7,000 per month," Renderos said.

On Craigslist, it was advertised at $8,000.

Renderos said the scammers use several tactics to hide their identities. They rarely list a contact phone number. Also, they ask for money up front as a deposit, often requesting a Western Union money transfer, which can't be traced. And the key to the home that's promised in exchange for the deposit money never arrives. The scammers keep the money.

"You can see that they've put a lot of verbiage on it," Renderos said. "They use very small font."

Fullerton Police Capt. Lorraine Jones said scammers are tough to catch because they often leave no paper trail and many live in another country.

"With so many people renting properties these days instead of owning them, the criminal element is picking up on that and they're increasing their target population," Jones said.

Several months ago, scammers posted an ad on Craigslist luring victims to a Hollywood apartment. One woman paid a deposit of more than $1,300 for the rental property. She was even given a key that turned out to be a fake. She later said her family was displaced by the scam.

In that incident, three people were arrested, but most scammers are never caught.

We contacted Craigslist seeking comment on this story, but the company never got back to us.

On its website, Craigslist offers this warning: "Do not rent housing without seeing the interior. In all likelihood that housing unit is not actually for rent."

That's the case with this three-bedroom Sunset Boulevard home. It's described as a one of a kind getaway in Brentwood for $6,700 per month. In an ad on Craigslist, the same home, the same pictures, goes for just $1,200 per month.

While most rental and lease listings you find online are legitimate, you should never put down a deposit unless you've actually seen the property from the inside and outside. Never send deposit money through Western Union or mail it out of the country. You will probably never see that money again.


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