Warning: (Another) Rental Scam Hits San Carlos.

March 26, 2013

On Trulia This Time.

If things weren't already bad enough in the San Carlos rental market —  with even more people competing for fewer rental homes, and rapidly escalating rental prices — now renters have to contend once again with slime-bag scammers who are trying to prey on the desperation that permeates the local rental market.  I wrote about this topic a couple of years ago, when it was happening with regular frequency on Craigslist.

Well, it's back again.  This time, however, the scammers are using the rental section on the popular website Trulia to swindle unsuspecting renters out of a few thousand bucks.  So it's very important to be aware of what's going on out there.

Same Scam, More Sophisticated.

Just like the Craiglist scam that has been running for a few years, this current illicit activity comes in the form of a seemingly legitimate rental posting in the rental section of Trulia's website.     These posts advertise homes for rent in San Carlos, complete with an accurate description of the home,  nice photos, and usually a very attractive rental price.    The problem is that the homes they're advertising for rent are not really for rent — they're homes that have been recently listed for sale on the MLS.  They simply steal the photos and the property description from the MLS (or any of third-party real estate sites that subscribe to the MLS feed) and create a completely false rental posting.

The hook here is the abnormally low rental prices that they are asking for these — usually about 50% off the going rate.  The scammers claim to be the homeowners who are out of town for an extended period of time and are looking to rent the home while they're gone.   Because they're out of town, they want to handle every aspect of the rental remotely, including sending the deposit check and any advance rental money to somewhere else in the country before they'll give you the keys to the place.

Well, you can see how this ends.   The eager renters send their money in, the keys never show up, and when they drive to the property to investigate, they're met by a befuddled homeowner who informs them that the house is not, and never will be for rent.

What makes this version of the scam even more dangerous is the level of sophistication.   Because access to public records is so easy on the internet nowadays, thieves are actually looking to see who the current owner is and then creating a fictitious email address with that name (which is really creepy).   So when renters start to check on the legitimacy of the post, the basic stuff seems to check out.  The more info that can be obtained online, the more they can make the posting look legit.

If It Looks To Good to be True…

Unfortunately, the only safeguard you have in these situations is your own common sense.  It's very hard to track down these types of criminals, simply because it's relatively easy to hide within the massive maze of the internet.  But there are a few telltale signs that a rental posting may be a scam — here are a few of the obvious ones:

  • Below Market Rent.  In one of the recent cases, they had listed an 1,800 square foot home for rent in a great San Carlos neighborhood for $1,700/mo.   If you've been even remotely connected to the rental market, you know that's less than half of what that home would fetch in this market.
  • Missing Owners.  In the recent Trulia cases, the supposed owners claimed to be in Atlanta visiting their 18-year old daughter for an extended period of time.  They were not able to show the property to anyone.   It's usually some sob stot
  • Rent Sight Unseen.    When they ask you to mail in a check to get the keys, and you haven't been able to see the place yet, this should be a major red flag.

The bottom line is that if normal rules of engagement for a rental aren't being followed, you should definitely proceed with caution.

**As a footnote — Trulia did ultimately take steps to remove the posts and block this particular user, once the scam was brought to their attention.  But it took about 5 days after they were notified, and during that time about a dozen potential renters stopped by these two homes trying to look around the property and gain access.  Not a good thing.

It's also worth noting that these types of scams can happen anywhere — Craiglist and Trulia were the two most noteworthy recent cases because they are so widely read.   Generally, the vast majority of rental listings on these two sites are totally legitimate, and this post should not be construed to imply that they're not.

It's simply a heads-up to be able to recognize those few postings that are not legit.

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  1. ann phillips on May 24, 2013 at 8:25 pm

    Hi, I’m hoping you will be kind and generous enough to help me. I am trying to establish a minimum/maximum rental value per year retroactive to 2008 for SFR 3+BR 2+bath > 1600 SF >7K sf lot in the area around La Mesa Dr. in San Carlos hills. I think it’s called brittain heights or something.
    Please email me i you will.can help me and also, please let me know if you cannot.
    I’m hoping as a blogger you have your finger on the pulse of the area.

    Thanks so much.

  2. Chuck Gillooley on May 26, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    Hi Ann,

    Sorry, but I can’t be much help you on this topic. In this day and age, the vast majority of landlords rent their units directly to the public without listing them on the MLS or enlisting the help of a Realtor. Consequently, there’s virtually no data that I can pull from the MLS to give you any sort of guidance. I just looked through the MLS, and over the past year there hasn’t been a single unit in the Brittan Heights complex that was rented via the MLS!


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