HANNIBAL — A real estate company is warning the community to be aware of the rise in online rental scams and to always know who you are working with.
Prestige Realty broker Sheri Neisen and Prestige Realty office manager Sarah Hathaway have both received reports of scams from local residents, usually in the form of a personal message that sends photos of houses hacked from real estate agencies.
While they can’t necessarily track scams or prevent them from happening, Neisen and Hathaway hope to get information out to the public so they can avoid and report scams if approached.
People looking for rentals often post to their personal profiles or various Facebook groups looking for specific criteria, like a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home. The scammer then responds in a personal message with photos of a local home that has everything they’re looking for.
They can’t pinpoint exactly where their photos were hacked from, but it could be from real estate sites like Zillow or Realtor.com where properties aren’t immediately taken down by sites after real estate agencies update them like sold.
The scammer often asks for a deposit to be sent in order to retain ownership.
Payment is generally not requested through secure or traceable methods, such as Paypal or Venmo, but through different types of gift cards. One person Neisen spoke with was alarmed and stopped talking to a potential owner when asked to pay with a Walmart gold card by sending pictures of both sides of the card.
Scammers also sometimes provide a fake phone number which may appear to be local through a phone app which will send a different number than where the text or call is actually sent.
The scammers’ Facebook profiles are also not legitimate names.
Neisen reported odd spellings with irregular spacing and capitalization; she crossed paths with one using the name “Vinny” presented as “Vi N ny”.
The scammer will also sometimes give the person he is sending permission to walk around the property he is touting, which may or may not be vacant.
“That’s what scares me because some of these properties might be occupied,” Neisen said.
Hathaway said with a current shortage of rentals in the area, scammers are using desperate situations to their advantage.
“When someone with a family is just weeks away from getting kicked out of their home, they’re much more likely to message a scammer again,” she said.
The rental scam price is generally low for the area, often including all utilities and other perks like a pet-friendly owner, to add pressure to send a deposit before someone another does not take hold of the case.
Neisen said it’s unfortunate because many send up to $500 in a scam and are unable to find that amount of money again for a legitimate rental.
“Now they are stuck and still have to find a place to live,” she said.
Neisen and Hathaway urge anyone dealing with a potential owner online to ensure they have a local connection to speak to and verify their identity.
Neisen said there weren’t many out-of-town investors who rented property in the area, but those who did usually had a local contact like a property manager.
“We have owner-listed investment properties in Colorado, but (Prestige) would be that local point of contact,” she said. “If you Google the property you will see that we have it listed.”
Looking at the submitted photos of the property, they said it’s also a good idea to look up that address on Zillow or Realty.com and see if they’re currently or previously listed, then call the real estate agent by which the property is listed.
“Always Google and verify,” Hathaway said.
There are also sites other than Facebook used for rental scams.
Neisen once discovered a rental listing on Craig’s List of a property sold the previous year through Prestige. She contacted the landlord who she said was not trying to rent the property, and he had to have the post removed from the site.
Another scam that Prestige hasn’t addressed, but which they continually monitor and warn customers about, is wire transfer fraud. This happens during the close when a scammer intercepts the close and sends a fake email from the title company with wiring instructions.
Neisen said a California real estate agent reported that a buyer lost nearly $1 million in a wire transfer requested from a fake email address. She also said that several years ago, a Hannibal agent from another agency received an email with a request for a wire transfer, but was intercepted before the money was sent.
Missouri now has a wire fraud pamphlet that it distributes to all of its customers.
“We always tell our employees never to follow wiring instructions unless you hear directly from your real estate agent,” Neisen said. “We call them and say we’re going to cable you instructions or we’re going to have the title company send instructions and it’ll be that person at that email address.”
Neisen and Hathaway urge anyone to call Prestige Realty if they need help verifying that a rental property is legitimate and to remain vigilant when contacted by a potential landlord.
“If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Hathaway said.