Be on the alert for scams

Anyone who may be looking for a home to rent in the Parkland area is advised to be cautious about potential scams. Real estate agent Donna ByFord, who works through Goodson Realty in Park Hills, was alerted to a swindle involving one of her sale listings Friday morning.

“This morning I got a phone call from a young lady who said, ‘I’ve been in contact with a seller who said his house used to be listed with you and I’m just trying to find out if it’s a scam or not,’” said ByFord.

The caller gave ByFord the address of the property and she immediately recognized it as being one of her active sale listings.

“A lot of times a seller will rent out a vacant house if it doesn’t sell,” said ByFord, “so that could have been legit. Except when she told me who it was, I knew it wasn’t (legitimate) because we just dropped the price two days ago. So I immediately called the seller to confirm.”

After thinking about the situation some more, ByFord said she remembered hearing a news report out of St. Louis about the same type of scam occurring recently in that area. 

ByFord and Deb Goodson, owner of the realty office, believe scammers are simply locating properties online and essentially hijacking the listing. In this instance, a photo of the Park Hills house and its description were taken directly from ByFord’s Multiple Listing Service (MLS) listing online.

The scammer replaced the real estate agent’s contact information with his own and claimed to be the owner of the property. A free Craigslist ad was created by the scammer offering the property for rent. All communication between the “seller” and prospective renter was done through email and text messaging.

“They tell you where to send the first month’s rent and the deposit,” ByFord said, “then they will FedEx you the key.”

The caller sent ByFord copies of all the emails and text messages she exchanged so far with the scammer, who was adamant about needing to receive the money before he could send her the key to the house.

“I took all my time to send this to you because I don’t want a tenant that will waste my time,” the email stated, “and last time I leased my house and sent the Keys first but the tenant never send my payment and keys back to me delay it for months until I track them down with the police, once bitten twice shy. so i was advice never to send my house keys to anyone until a part payment is made first and also send you a ContractAgreement before any payment is made so the Applicant can know It is all legit.”

ByFord said the scammer used the actual property owner’s name, although the first and last names were reversed. Listings in MLS, the nationwide listing service used by licensed agents and brokers, do not include the names of private sellers and property owners, so it is apparent the scammer obtained the owner’s name from other online sources.

The scammer claimed to be living in Texas so was “unable” to meet with any prospective renters at the property to show them around and instead invited the woman to “go by the address yourself, Peep through the available open windows to have a view of the interior and exterior then get back to me at your leisure time… We apologies for any inconvenience it may seem and we plead to please bear with us for i ain’t permitted out of work to come down there.”

The scammer also claimed to be a medical doctor “with two adopted kids.”

Fortunately for the prospective renter, the legitimate owner of the property and the real estate agent, no money changed hands. The scammer was asking for the renter to wire him a total of $1,200.

“Rent is $650 (which Covers Utilities Such as: (power, water, dishwasher, sewer and trash..) and a holding refundable security deposit of $550 which makes your total move in cost $1200.”

Instead, the renter became suspicious after her communications with the scammer and called the number for the real estate agent listed on the “for sale” sign on the property.

Had the renter followed through with sending the scammer the money, the situation could have become quite complicated.

“Being a real estate agent,” said ByFord, “what I know can happen is, you mail off the check to whoever you’re supposed to mail it to, you don’t want to wait for the key, you call a locksmith who’s not likely to ask any questions. They’re gonna open up that house, you’re going to move in. Now the seller finds out someone’s living in his house. But he can’t just call the police and kick you out. He now has to start eviction proceedings. So now you’ve got a huge problem. It can take four to six months (to resolve).”

ByFord and Goodson have contacted the police and are hoping an investigation into the scam will be conducted.

In the meantime, the agents urge potential renters, and buyers as well, to be very cautious about responding to listings on Craigslist or other free advertising websites, especially if the “owner” is not available to show them the property or if there is no real estate agent involved in the transaction.

“Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions,” said Goodson, “and never, ever send anyone money in exchange for a key. There should always be a local contact person to show the property and to handle the paperwork and ensure the renter is given keys to the house.”

Amy Patterson is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3616 or apatterson@dailyjournalonline.com.

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