by Broderick Perkins
(2/1/2012) - What could be worse?
A. You've loaded up the truck with your family's belongings, you pull up to your new apartment and knock on the door, only to discover it's already occupied. The residents have no idea who you are.
B. You've been on the plane for hours, headed for a resort vacation destination, but when you arrive the property manager can't find a reservation for you. The place is booked.
Either way, that sickening feeling in your stomach tells you you've been had as the latest victim in what's called the "impostor landlord" scam, designed to lure you to accommodations that don't exist - after you've paid handsomely.
Spawned by an economic downturn that has left people displaced and vulnerable as they search for new housing, impostor landlords are among the nastiest cons making the rounds. In addition to taking your money, the scam could literally leave you out in the cold.
For the conventional rental market, the scammers convince potential renters to shell out thousands of dollars upfront, purportedly for first, last month's rent and a security deposit - and sometimes follow-up rental payments - for property not owned by the con posing as a landlord.
The scammers often use the Internet to cash in, first to find real rentals they mimic and offer for rent, then later as the vehicle to traffic their fraud.
The Internet also makes the short-term vacation rental market vulnerable to the crime.
Unlike the central, standardized Realtor.com listing site for homes for sale, the Internet is littered with thousands of legitimate vacation rental market listing sites, but they use nonstandard listings formats that are easy to mimic as lures for unsuspecting travelers.
"We have had our listings lifted," said Jan Leasure, managing broker at Monterey Bay Property Management in Monterey and Pacific Grove which manages both long term rentals and vacation rentals throughout the Monterey Peninsula.
She says scammers have mimicked her company's listings - primarily long-term rental listings - and posted them on Craigslist and Zillow.
"When I go to conventions, if I'm in a room with 600 mangers, 400 have had it happen to them. It's widespread. It's the Internet. Well before the Net, I can't even think of anything comparable to this," Leasure said.
The big-time grifters are cashing in on a rental market gone wild, thanks to the owner-occupied housing crisis that has cost many families their home and prevents others from obtaining a mortgage, according to a recent consumer alert from the California Department of Real Estate "Beware of Impostor Landlords.".
The alert says impostor landlords go to great lengths to feign ownership in order to hoodwink people into renting properties they will never occupy.
Among their tactics, impostor landlords
• Break into vacant homes, change the locks and secure the property to give the illusion of ownership.
• Access county assessor websites to obtain a document called "Preliminary Change of Ownership Report." They then forge a report in their name and offer the document as evidence of ownership. Some will even make a payment on a small tax lien and use the payment as evidence of ownership.
• Rip-off existing tenants. The con artists send bogus letters, emails (of the phishing variety to get rubes to contact a bogus web site or person), and other documents, instructing existing tenants to cease rental payments to the property owner and send the payments elsewhere -- to the impostor. They also prepare false leases or rental agreements to further the official look.
Vacation property investor and author of "How To Rent Vacation Properties By Owner" (Kinney Pollack Press) Christine Karpinski says the scam is "pervasive" in the vacation rental market because that real estate sector is also booming but, because the public is just too trusting.
"It's always happened, but it's become more sophisticated and more pervasive. The vast majority of people don't have the capacity for skepticism. They are just too trusting. It makes for a lovely society, but you have to have a bit of skepticism if you are dealing with money over the Internet. You have to be careful," Karpinski said.
The experts say, a major giveaway, for those who take the time to scrutinize the come-ons, are the bargain basement prices. The scam artist reel them in by offering prices that are, indeed, too good to be true.
"If the price is not in line with what other properties are going for, that's a clue," said Leasure.
The "deals" also typically demand cash or a wire transfer. Using a credit card is wiser when renting. Should there be a dispute, your credit card issuer will often go to bat for you, freeze the account (time permitting), even reverse the charge.
"A real property manager would not hesitate to take your Visa or MasterCard to pay for a reservation. A scam artist is not going to take a credit card. They want a wire transfer, check or money order," said Leasure.
The DRE suggest other steps to take to ward off landlord impostors
• Check the license. If the person says he or she is a property manager or an agent of the owner or landlord, that person should be licensed. Visit DRE at http://www.dre.ca.gov to look up their license or inquire about the status of their license.
• Check the records. If you are an existing tenant, check with your county recorder's office to determine the property's true owner of record. While there is some recording time lag, records generally indicate if the property has a Notice of Default recorded against it and who currently holds title, a new owner or the lender.
• Wise up. Use licensed property managers and real estate agents to help you find rental housing to guard against being ripped off. Otherwise, your sense of urgency to find housing is a signal to use common sense and not rush headlong into a trap. Comparison shop the rental price so you are familiar with the going rates. Carefully research all rental property deals by investigating property ownership and property management, just as you would do a title search when buying a home.
"Do some digging and make sure the owner really is the owner," said Karpinski.
"I Google phone numbers. It (a real vacation rental listing) should come up if they are listed on multiple Web sites. If you get a phone number that's not listed on the ads, or the phone number doesn't match the ad, then there is something weird about that," Karpinski said.
"And talk to people. Scammers can scam over the phone, but combined with the other steps, talking can help weed out the scammers," she added.
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