Ann Marie Marthens has a two bedroom charmer in Highland Park she is leasing for $3,000 a month. Nestled on Abbott Avenue, it’s close to Armstrong Elementary and within walking distance to all the fun on Knox/Henderson and the Katy Trail.
As the property owner, she listed it on Trulia, as well as mentioned its availability on the Park Cities Online Yard Sale group on Facebook a few days ago – and then something weird happened.
“At first I was confused, when I got a few calls asking about my house in HP for $1,000,” she said. “They all said they had seen it online.”
Then she logged on to her computer and saw that someone in the yard sale group had posted a screen grab of a nearly identical listing – photos and everything – that offered her house for $1,000 a month, asking the group if they remembered seeing the same home listed a few days ago. And well, they did. For a lot more.
“I was shocked and confused,” Marthens continued. “At first I thought my Trulia account had been hacked. But when I went to correct the bogus price I realized I couldn’t because the con artist had actually entered the listing under his own account and used a picture and description of my house.”
The scammer – listed as Kelvin – simply added a #A after the actual address of the home to create his listing.
And then others started chiming in with comments on the post, like:
- “I am a Realtor doing property management and almost every house we list now has this happen.”
- “This happens with almost every listing. If it looks too good to be true, it is. We always ask to see the property first.”
- “This happened to me a a couple of years ago after buying my house. A scammer had used the MLS photos and posted it for rent on several other sites. We literally had people coming to our house during the day and looking through windows!”
- “One of my clients had some people show up with ALL OF THEIR THINGS trying to move in (a month or so after they started leasing it) because they thought someone was supposed to be there with the keys. The poor people had already given the scammer the deposit and first months rent. “
So clearly, there is a pretty big problem. And since some mentioned they had trouble getting their listings removed, I did two things: I began chatting with Trulia PR, and I posed as a potential renter and emailed Kelvin myself.
Trulia representative Matt Flegal responded immediately, first asking for the address of the home in question. He quickly emailed back and said that the company had taken down the fraudulent listing immediately.
“Fraud is something we take very seriously,” he said. “It’s a challenge that everyone in the industry is facing. Trulia is fighting it in several ways.”
He said their first action is to block fraudulent listings. They have software tools that look for suspicious listing continuously, and then a team reviews them. “We proactively contact agents to claim and confirm listings,” he added.
He also said that consumers can flag suspicious listings directly on the website, or email the team at email@example.com, and that they also try to educate consumers with information about common types of fraud, and warn on each listing to look for rental fraud.
Flegal also agreed that you should never give someone money without touring the interior of the home, and should always question a rent that is far lower than market value.
Back in 2013, we talked to Realtor Colin Lardner about these types of scams, and he suggested informing sites like Trulia and Zillow immediately when you see something wrong. “We have also contacted the FBI when we see a poached listing,” he added. He suggested also listing on MLS, where it is harder to scam.
Realtor Jeff Cieslik agreed. “You could also use a realtor and use MLS listings only. Agents are required to have signed listing agreements before posting to the MLS. More accountability there and a professional system. Your agent also works directly with the listing agent typically.”
So what about that email to “Kelvin,” asking for information about the home? Well, he emailed me back Sunday morning. And his (or her, I suppose) email was a doozy. It contained a story probably designed to make me think they’re Christians, “The main reason our house is up for lease is because I got transferred from my church to (LOUISIANA) on a Missionary Work by my church here and also for my son operation who have cancer,” he/she said.
And get this – that $1,000 lease includes utilities. The “application” asks if I smoke or drink, but advises me that “(We just want to know don’t get it twisted) no hard feelings.” Kelvin is asking for $1,000 for the first month’s rent and $1,000 for a deposit. He/she also says that, “As i am not around to show the inside, you can go check out the house and the neighborhood from the outside and get back to me if you really like it for more information. Please respond ASAP. ”
Hello, this is Texas – a Castle Law state. Peeking in windows of an occupied home might just earn me a few lead accessories in my brain case, if you know what I mean. So yeah, yeah. I’ll be doing just that. Personally, I think Kelvin made a tragic error in not knowing the market value of the area in which he was trying to pull off a scam. For real, people, just in case you’re wondering – $1,000 all bills paid just isn’t happening in Highland Park.
“I think it awful that people are losing thousands of dollars to these scam artists,” Marthens said about her experience. “The government has to do something to try to catch these guys. It is rampant all over the internet.”