Notice the red flags, avoid the rental scams

There’s an old, Latin phrase “caveat emptor” – or “let the buyer beware” – that has been around probably since humans first started trading with other humans.

Laws have been passed to try to protect buyers and sellers. For example, in real estate, there are mold disclosures, radon disclosures and the all-encompassing “residential real estate property disclosure form” that requires a seller, under certain conditions, to disclose pertinent information they know about a house. That being said, and with all the good intentions of lawmakers everywhere, there is little anyone can do to protect you from those scrupulous people who wish to do you harm.

In today’s world of information, data flow freely across the planet. People on other continents simply use their computers to see what’s for sale in other parts of the world. And this is a good thing – usually.  The concern is that when someone wishes to pull a fast one, it’s often more easy to do so today.

For the past couple of years, there has been a huge increase in the number of rental scams people are attempting to perpetrate against the public. These crooks simply go online and find homes that are listed for sale and then post information using real data and oftentimes real pictures to add credibility to their claims. They offer these homes for rent and have vivid, imaginative stories about why they aren’t there and why the home is for rent for so cheap and why you shouldn’t contact the agent who has a sign in the front yard.

Is anyone else seeing some red flags here?

Regardless of what we see as definite indicators of suspicion, there are hundreds of people who are conned out of money daily, weekly and monthly. And while we all suspect this happens in other states and other cities, the fact is that it happens here in McHenry County.

It’s a white-collar crime, so it often gets much less attention. That is, this isn’t a violent crime; no one was physically hurt, but that doesn’t mean it is victimless. People are hurt, and this type of crime usually hits those who are down on their luck – those who can least afford to lose a few hundred or thousands of dollars.

So how does it work? The crooks find a property to use as their bait. They use online websites to post these properties for rent. They usually offer the property for a lower rent rate than would be usual to garner interest. Then they write of some extraordinary situation that keeps them from being able to meet you. Many of the perpetrators of these rental scams are overseas, and often in African countries, but not always – so don’t think because the “landlord” appears to be local that it’s automatically legitimate.

The thieves often tell of being on an African mission and unable to be home, but because of their love of God and His blessings, He has enabled these people to offer the home at a reduced price so long as to pray that you will keep the home in a loving way. You get the point, no doubt.

Seriously, this is what they do, and, seriously, people send them money. They ask for a down payment – sometimes whatever you can afford – to hold the property until the rest of the money can be sent. The keys, they say, will be mailed to the prospective tenant upon delivery of the rent. And, of course, “don’t contact the agent if there is a sign in the yard.  This agent doesn’t know we might be renting the property and would be mad and make up stories if you contact them.”

Rest assured, real estate agents are not going to make up stories about who doesn’t own the property and whether it is for rent. Real estate agents are required to determine the owners of the property and get proper paperwork signed before listing the property for rent or for sale before ever installing their signage. 

So, what should you do? 1. Be aware of these types of scams. 2. Don’t send money to people you don’t know or haven’t met. 3. Don’t fall for must-act-now pressure situations. 4. Contact the agent whose sign is in the yard. 5. Call the police if you feel you’re being scammed. Look up the nonemergency phone number for the police department where the home is located. Of course, if you should meet these people – which is rare – and feel you are in danger, call 9-1-1. 6. Remember, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. 7. If you fall for one of these scams, let someone know. Your error might be able to protect someone else from being victimized. You’re not alone. Many hundred and, probably, thousands of people have been victims of these scams.

• Jim Haisler is a licensed real estate managing broker, CE instructor and pre-license instructor. He is the chief executive officer of the Heartland REALTOR® Organization but is not an attorney. This information is provided as informational and is not legal advice but rather his opinion is based on his knowledge and extensive experience in the real estate industry.

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