Avoiding online housing scams

March 10, 2010 3:31:24 PM PST
Foreclosures are at an all-time high, and now, former homeowners with damaged credit are flooding the rental market - looking for bargains. And online scammers are pouncing. So how can you avoid getting ripped off on a rental? It's a seemingly picture perfect listing: four bedrooms, two baths on a quiet, tree-lined suburban New Jersey street, all for just $1,100 a month.

"I found it suspicious," real estate broker Melissa Estevez said.

One of Estevez' clients found the online listing.

"There's no such thing as a four-bedroom house with the owner paying all of the utilities for $1,000," Estevez said. "It doesn't exist."

Melissa responded to the listing and got an e-mail requesting an array of personal information and a $1,000 deposit. Since the owner was in Nigeria, the money had to be wired. There's just one problem.

Portia Prisco is the actual owner of the house being used in this bogus pitch, and she says she never sent the e-mail. And her home isn't even on the market.

In fact, it's been a year since her home was for sale, yet now she's getting visited by renters inquiring about the scam rental.

"Trust your instincts," Craigslist postal inspector John Del Giudice said. "If the situation doesn't feel right, just get out of there."

Del Giudice said there are some tell tale signs of a scam in the e-mail. First, the thief was from Nigeria and the scammer was asking for a deposit before showing the rental.

"Try to deal locally with people, with landlords, with properties where you can actually go out and meet or properties you can see," he said.

As for Portia, it's her warnings that have helped renters avoid getting ripped off.

"I advise them to just do it through a realtor," she said. "Do it the old fashioned way."