CLEARWATER, Fla. — Tampa Bay realtors are fed up with people copying their listings and trying to scam renters looking for a home. It’s an issue getting worse here in the Tampa Bay area as affordable housing becomes harder to come by.
“I've probably answered 50 calls over the weekend,” exclaimed Jess Rasemont, a realtor with Sellstate Legacy Realty in Tampa Bay.
Typically that’s exactly what a realtor wants when they list a property for sale, except when they’re selling a two-bedroom home in Clearwater for $343,000, and people are calling to rent it for $900 a month.
“All Friday, all through the afternoon, all through the evening, all Saturday morning, all Sunday, I was fielding a ton of calls from renters potential renters who had seen the property listed for $900,” Rasemont explained.
The people calling said that the person claiming to be the owner via a post online told them that he took a new job in Texas and that they could drive by the home to see it. That’s when many of them saw the for sale sign out front and called Rasemont.
She also got a call from Pinellas County Consumer Protection telling her that her listing had been copied and pasted on Craigslist.
“I reached out to the person who listed their phone number posing as my seller,” Rasemont told ABC Action News.
In the text messages, the person had a Pinellas County area code, used the homeowner’s real name and asked for $1,800 for the security deposit and first month's rent in addition to an application fee via Bitcoin.
“He wanted me to find the nearest Bitcoin ATM, and then he was going to send me his code to send him a $100 application fee,” Rasemont exclaimed.
She flagged the post on Craiglist for three days before it was taken down. The Pinellas County Consumer Protection Office told us that they flagged the post as well and are still investigating who was behind it.
“Our department has begun an initiative to try to flag and report fraudulent rental listings,” explained Pinellas County Consumer Protection Investigator Anna Marie Fiallos.
The county investigators started reviewing rental ads on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace in April and identified 63 fraudulent listings in less than four months.
“We realize with the current market scams are on the increase because you have, you know, high rent increases, and then you have a low availability of affordable housing,” Fiallos added.
We did a search for a two-bedroom home for rent in Tampa Bay on Craiglist and found most average about $2,000, but a few are almost half that price.
Through our research, we found that those posting unusually cheap rentals often say they can’t do tours because they’re out of state for work.
“When a scammer or whoever it is that you're contacting refuses to meet with you, oftentimes they'll say yeah, go ahead and drive by the property look in the windows,” Fiallos confirmed.
We also spoke with another Tampa Bay realtor who said someone posted one of his properties for rent on Craiglist using a Google Voice phone number. That’s a number connected to a cell phone or computer for free, even if international.
“There's different ways to disguise who they are and the phone numbers," Fiallos said, “But we're often finding that they're not local.”
She adds that Bitcoin machine money transfers are also a newer way to get money that can’t be traced.
“We always advise consumers, any type of payment, it's best to use credit card that way you can dispute it if there should be an issue,” Fiallos advised.
Aside from doing thorough research, it’s safest to pursue rentals through a licensed broker or real estate agent.
“It really does bug me for people to get taken advantage of this is my community,” Rasemont exclaimed. “We are building community through real estate and trying to help people and to see people get taken advantage of… everybody's working so hard. You know the economy is not great right now. So every dollar counts.”
The rental rule of thumb: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Hillsborough County tells us they’ve been able to catch five rental scammers in the last six months through community tips and information submitted to the sheriff’s office.
If caught, charges range from scheming to defraud, impersonation, and grand theft — felonies that could result in prison time.
We reached out to Craigslist and Facebook for information on their policies and actions to remove fraudulent listings.
Facebook responded with links to their policies and advice. Click here.
Be suspicious that the property or transaction could be a scam if:
- The advertised price is much lower than that of similar properties.
- Ads for the property have grammatical and spelling errors, or overuse capital letters.
- The ad uses uncommon spellings of words, like "favour" instead of "favor."
- You can only work with an agent. The agent says that the owner is too busy, out of the country, or otherwise unavailable to handle the rental.
- The owner or agent requires you to sign the lease before you see the rental property.
- The owner or agent isn't able to let you enter the home or apartment or charges you a fee to view it.
- The owner or agent uses high-pressure sales tactics. They may urge you to rent quickly before someone else gets the property.
- Learn the basics of how rental listing scams work.
- Get the terms of your rental in writing, including fees, rent, and maintenance.
- Get a copy of the lease, signed by both you and the property owner/manager.
- Do a search on the owner, real estate management company, and listing. If you find the same ad listed under a different name, that’s a clue it may be a scam.
- Visit real estate websites. See if the home you want to rent is also listed in another city. A scammer could have copied the photo or description of another rental to use in their ad.
- Learn how military families can avoid rental scams (PDF, Download Adobe Reader).
- Don’t wire money as a deposit or payment for the first and last month's rent. Wiring money is the same as giving cash; you can't get a refund, even if you find out the offer was a fraud.
- Don’t give in to high-pressure sales tactics.
- Don’t pay a security deposit, fee, or first month’s rent before you’ve signed a lease.
- Don’t rent a property that you are unable to see before signing the agreement.
- Don’t send money for a rental overseas.
- Don’t give your personal information or Social Security number to a property owner without verifying their identity.
Click here for specific advice from Pinellas County Consumer Protection.