Beware the real estate scammer

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By Will McCullough

While the modern real estate industry uses a wide range of “checks and balances” to protect individuals from fraud, the common utilization of digital marketing in today’s world has opened the door to creative scammers, con-men and all around scumbags. While I personally have seen only a few blatant attempts at real estate related “scams” over the years locally, those few could have been utterly catastrophic to the unsuspecting potential victims. I was motivated to choose this topic for today’s column because my most recent related experience took place just last week and, as this specific scumbag initiated a scam I’d never seen or heard of before, I felt it important to share.  But, before I share the details, please allow me to reintroduce you to a few catchy sayings you may have heard before:

1. Believe but verify.

2. There’s a sucker born every minute.

3. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

4. Don’t take any wooden nickels.

5. Ask no questions, hear no lies.

All that being said, here’s what happened: I had a client who was looking for a rental property to reside in on Lady’s Island.  Deena and I normally don’t handle rentals but wanted to help this person.  Anyways, we were contacted by the client last week and they, apparently, had found the “perfect rental” on Lady’s Island via Trulia.com and asked if we could investigate it for them before they sent the owner their deposit.  Upon a little standard research, we found the home offered for sale in our MLS by a reputable local agent but not offered for rent. We thought that was odd so we then located the rental listing our client had found posted on Trulia.com. The contact number for the rental listing was a Chicago area code.  This sent up a “red flag”, I know the listing agent personally and he’s not from Chicago. We then tried to contact the listing agent but were unable to reach him. As it’s not totally unheard of for a person to attempt to rent a property themselves while simultaneously listing it for sale via an agent, we went ahead and called the number on Trulia.  I mean, come on, it’s Trulia right?

And then it got weird …

When we called the number, an individual answered who allegedly spoke little English. They also had a really bad phone connection. There was enough clarity to eventually exchange email addresses and cell phone numbers for texting. I realized later that, despite my best efforts, he apparently thought I was a potential renter and not an agent.  Or he didn’t care. In hindsight, who knows? In any event, below please find an extremely condensed version of our two days of text/email conversations:

Me: I have a client interest in renting your home. I will contact your agent directly.

Scumbag: I am renting myself due to bad experience with Realtor and tenant.

Scumbag: Renting myself. You don’t have to contact agent anymore.

Me: How can we gain access to view the home?

Scumbag: Drive by tonight and look through windows.

Me: How do we get the key to see inside?

Scumbag: OK, sounds good. Send the $1000 deposit and I will send you keys.

Me: My clients will not send a deposit until they have seen inside and have an executed lease.

Scumbag: OK, understand we need to trust but other people want my house too.

Scumbag: OK, my wife says we will take half deposit then send keys.

Me: No, we will not send funds until we have viewed inside and verified ownership, etc.

Scumbag: We are a God fearing family and treat others this way. Send half deposit and we send keys.

The above communication examples continued to repeat, varied slightly, in a frustrating circle, via email, text and garbled phone calls, for some time. I then finally received a response from the listing agent whom I’d contacted earlier. As it turned out, the property was not being offered for rent, only for sale. As a matter of fact, the owner had yet to even move out and was still living in the home.

Here’s what happened in a nutshell. This individual found the legitimate “for sale” listing of the property in question online.  He then created a bogus (and tantalizingly below market) “for rent” listing for the same property on Trulia.com utilizing the real “for sale” listing’s online pictures and details and was attempting to convince potential local renters to send a deposit to his Chicago mailing address after instructing them to simply drive by and “look through the windows”. He made this seem plausible and realistic by expressing his love of “Christian values” while simultaneously feigning a lack of mastery for the English language.

It’s OK though. All was reported to the appropriate folks. What’s the moral of the story?  Always remember to apply the appropriate “protect your fiscal backside” saying of your choice listed earlier before sending anyone money for any reason.  As a bonus, we may have at least helped initiate a catchy new saying: Think twice before you post your home mailing address to someone you are trying to scam.