It seems that in our tightening economy we are hearing more and more about real estate scams. People posing as owners/landlords creating fraudulent leases robbing people of their deposit, even some owners with a foreclosure sale set on their property. And so many of us agents have had our listings hijacked online by people like these. What can we do to help prevent this and protect our consumers? Increase awareness? Mandate paperwork or create additional legislation? What is the solution?
Scams aren’t new phenomena in real estate but they have taken on a new dimension with the increased use of the Internet by anyone wanting to take the money and run. Scammers can leave a wake of frustrated homeowners, distraught tenants and angry Realtors® all looking for ways to stop them. Realtors® frequently are on the front line battling these scams. We advertise our properties on Craigslist and risk our listing data being scraped, and falsely advertised as a rental. We field the phone calls after a consumer has been “taken” by someone in a fraudulent transaction. And we write offers on properties and handle short sale transactions that may (unbeknownst to us) put us in the center of a mortgage fraud situation or other fraudulent buyer scam.
Our hands are often tied as scammers are able to hide behind untraceable email addresses and fake ID’s to keep us from easily finding out who they are. However there may be a few ways to at least thwart their attempts to steal a listing and money from a prospective buyer or tenants pocket.
For agents who use Craigslist as a marketing tool, instead of posting your listing in a straight text format use one of the pre-formatted templates such as Vflyer, Postlets or Real Bird. These templates make it harder for someone to quickly scrape your content and re-post it. If you decide to post photos watermark them with your phone number, name or real estate company. This way if they are stolen your information is visible to anyone who sees them.
If you are a homeowner who is using a free or paid website to try and find a buyer or tenant for your property, set up a daily Google Alert for your address, subdivision and/or street name. Check it see if you notice it showing up with links to another site. If you see something that doesn’t look right contact the site administrator where your original ad is posted right away. Most will take it down immediately.
If you are a consumer and are thinking of renting or buying a property you have seen online ALWAYS met with the person who is advertising the property in person. Check on-line sources such as Zillow, Trulia or Realtor.com for confirmation that what you see on-line is accurate. Never under any circumstances wire any money directly to someone you have not met or provide them with your social security number or financial information. A reputable agent or homeowner will meet you at their home or office.
As Realtors® are best defense is always a good offense. As with most of the challenges we face in our market staying informed and passing information on to our clients and prospects is paramount. We aren’t law enforcement and can’t go after a scammer ourselves. If we or anyone we know has fallen prey to a scam we need to make sure that all of the information is passed on to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) through their on-line filing process for reporting and possible prosecution.