Renter beware: real estate scam surfaces again

A house in the 800 block of Moundridge Dr. has been the subject of an old Craigslist scam. People who don't own the property list it for rent online, tricking unwitting renters into wiring deposit money.

Tips to avoid this scam

Local law enforcement and real estate professionals agree on several tips that can help house hunters spot these scams before they lose money:

• Be suspicious. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

• Try to verify the identity of the person you are doing business with. If they are legitimate, they should have a phone number or other contact information listed publicly.

• Don’t wire money. Sending cash by Western Union, MoneyPak, or other anonymous transfers offers no protection against fraud. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

• Anyone selling or renting a property should be able to give access to the house. If you can’t go inside before sending money, that should be a red flag.

• If you are in any doubt, call the realtor.

Please don’t try to rent this house on Moundridge Drive.

It’s a nice house, sure. And it certainly sounds like a rare deal: a 1,290 square-foot home, with two beds and two baths, advertised to rent for $500 per month. It sounds too good to be true.

That’s because it is.

The house is for sale, not for rent, and the online listings offering the house for that $500 monthly rent are bogus, operated by an anonymous con artist who might be in California or Siberia, for all the authorities know. Some prospective renters have already been cheated out of a $250 deposit that they will never get back, while the actual owners, neighbors, and real estate agent have been driven to distraction by all of the misled house hunters who have stopped by to peer through the windows.

It’s an old scam, but it still works today much as it has for several years. A scammer “scrapes” the information from a legitimate online real estate listing and creates a similar one, but with the prices slashed to attract renters. When renters respond to the ad, the scammer typically tells an elaborate story to explain why they can’t meet face to face or let anyone inside the house. They have moved to Texas, or are doing missionary work in Africa.

Send a deposit by money order, the renters are told, and the keys will be returned by mail. In the meantime, feel free to go over and look in the windows. Of course, if an unfortunate house hunter sends the money, it disappears into the anonymous world of international wire transactions, and the keys never materialize.

The case in the 800 block of Moundridge Drive in Lawrence has played out much the same way over the past two weeks, but with some new twists. What hasn’t changed is the aggravation and harm the fraud causes.

Too good to be true

Rebecca Barlow stumbled onto the fake advertisement for the house while searching the local Craigslist pages. Recently arrived from Texas with her husband and three children, her family was staying temporarily with relatives in Johnson County. But they couldn’t stay there long, so Barlow needed to find a new home quickly, and the family was short on money after the move. When Barlow saw the Moundridge Drive house advertised for such a low rent, she thought it was the answer.

Everything looked right, because all of the details, and even the photos, were copied from the legitimate sale listing. And if the price was a little too good to be true, that only added to the urgency of jumping on it. “It sounded really good,” Barlow said. She had never heard of fake real estate listings, and answered the ad by email.

The person answering the rental listing claimed to be the husband of the deceased owner, now living, by coincidence, in Texas. Barlow even got a look at him during a video chat, and he warned Barlow not to contact the real estate company. The agent was trying to defraud him, he said.

Other people were interested in the house, the scammer claimed, and Barlow would have to send a deposit by Moneypak, a kind of prepaid card used to transfer cash. Like money orders, it can be used anonymously anywhere in the world, and is a new favorite of online scammers.

Barlow didn’t want to pay an entire $750 deposit without having the keys in hand. Instead, she sent $250, and agreed to pay the rest after being able to enter the house.

But when she went to Moundridge Drive to look at the house, she found the “For Sale” sign in the yard. The neighbors informed her that, while it was true that the owner had recently died, her husband had died years before and couldn’t be the one Barlow dealt with.

“At that point, that’s when I realized it was a scam and I’d lost $250,” Barlow said.

It was money the family couldn’t afford to lose. They are still looking for work, they must leave their relatives’ home soon, and Barlow isn’t sure where they’ll go.

‘Very little we can do’

Barlow wasn’t the only one to make this mistake. Dozens of people have been driving by the house, looking in the windows, and calling Susan Thomas, the actual real estate agent working to sell the house on behalf of the owner’s children.

“My phone was ringing off the hook,” Thomas said. The calls started during Labor Day and continued until she contacted police and the phony listing was taken down from Craigslist. Even so, other false advertisements, for the same house but with different stories, have appeared on other websites. “It is frustrating, because it seems like there’s nothing you can do to prevent it.”

Such cases are very difficult to investigate, said Sgt. Trent McKinley, a Lawrence Police Department spokesman. Investigators often try to track the phone numbers and Internet addresses associated with these scams, but those often lead to dead ends at anonymous devices overseas.

Real estate agents are well educated in dealing with these frauds, but that knowledge often isn’t available to consumers, said Rob Hulse, the executive officer of the Lawrence Board of Realtors. He hears about these scams in Lawrence at least once each month. “We have very little we can do,” he said. Realtors watch for the fake listings and get them flagged and removed, but more appear every day.

The best way to combat such scams is for consumers to be wary of them, said Charles Branson, the Douglas County District Attorney. He’s been hearing complaints about this type of fraud for years, and he doesn’t blame people for being tricked.

“Unfortunately, it never really goes away,” Branson said. “A lot of the time, it sounds pretty convincing. People are in a hurry, they see a good deal, they jump on it.”