Craigslist rental scam ramping up in Manatee County
MANATEE -- Fraudulent Craigslist postings that advertise some Manatee County rental homes and vacation accommodations are luring prospective renters to pay deposits and full rental fees on properties the perpetrators have no right to rent.
Realtors and rental agents say it's a scam as old as the online classifieds site itself. But it has become more appealing as the overall rental market has tightened to 3-percent vacancy and as tourist season approaches.
According to rental professionals who have seen the scam operate, a rental property is listed at a price much lower than average in a particular market. The scheme draws desperate renters to send deposits to quickly reserve what seems to be a great deal, even though they're never able to tour the property.
Nancy Blais, a Bradenton resident, almost got caught up in the scam in late September. She responded to a Craigslist ad that listed a home on 36th Street West in Bradenton for rent for $800 a month. Blais, who has custody of her grandchild, had recently been notified she had to leave her rental home when the owner sold the property. She emailed the person posting the ad, a woman who claimed to be living in Oregon.
What she got back was what she called a "sob story," in which the poster said she and her family had to leave the home suddenly to take a job opportunity overseas and to recover from injuries sustained in a car accident. Blais said the poster, who identified herself as Tina Cordell, told her to visit the property and look through the windows to determine whether she was interested in renting.
She also told Blais to ignore any rental signs in the yard placed there by real estate firms. That, and the fact that Cordell did not provide a phone number to discuss the rental, made Blais suspicious. She decided the ad was too good to be true.
"It was like, wow, there's something wrong," she said.
Blais wasn't the only person to respond to the ad. Mona Haymore, a real estate and rental agent with ReMax Alliance Group's Bradenton office who represents the property's owner, said she received about 15 calls from people who saw the Craigslist post. When she told them that the monthly rental was actually $1,200 and that the property was no longer available, many were upset.
"They're getting angry at me because the house is already rented," she said.
This is not the first time Haymore has run into the scam. She said she believes it is being run by both the woman who contacted Blais and a man who poses as a missionary living in Africa.
While she doesn't know of anyone who actually paid a deposit on the 36th Street property, she has spoken to at least one person swindled on one of her past listings. In that instance, she said a woman showed up at a listing she was preparing for move in claiming she was the rightful tenant. She even had a leasing document she had received via email from the scammer after paying a deposit.
Ads look legitimate
The rental scam seems legitimate because it looks legitimate. Candy Conte, a vacation rental agent with ReMax Alliance's Holmes Beach office, said scammers steal material from her online property listings, including photos and property details. In at least one case, she said the scammer only put some of the photos from her listing online, holding others back to send via email to potential victims asking for more images.
Out-of-towners who have paid deposits on the rentals she represents have the least opportunity to check on the ad's validity. Some, she said, have paid upfront to rent units by the week or by the month. They've only discovered they were scammed when they arrived in town and learn that the rental was occupied by someone else.
"It's, of course, heartbreaking when these people come," Conte said. "They're often victimized because they're desperate to get a place during peak season."
Both Conte and Haymore have contacted law enforcement in the past when they've come across the Craigslist scam, but say they've been told that there is little that can be done.
Dave Bristow, public affairs officer with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, said his office has received only one complaint about the scam, as far as sheriff's personnel can recall. But he encourages victims to report the fraud because the office will investigate.
He also cautioned rental seekers to do their homework, including making a site visit, calling legitimately advertised rental agents and even checking property records to help determine whether they are communicating with an actual property owner.
"Just do your homework," he said. "Go look at the house, have them show you the house."
Some scams have been interrupted before a victim lost money. Aby Brooks, a Realtor with Barrett Realty of Lakewood Ranch, ran into one potential victim last summer while visiting a listing in the Arlington Park area in Sarasota. She said the man found a "for rent" ad for the house on Craigslist and was there to see it in person.
Brooks informed the man that the house was actually for sale and was not available for rent. She later informed the Sarasota Police Department.
"If I had not happened upon him while he was there, he would probably have been out a deposit," Brooks said.
Brooks, Haymore and Conte said the best way to avoid being scammed is to work with a legitimate real estate agent, unless they can otherwise prove they are dealing with a property owner or a legitimate property representative.
Craigslist does carry ads around the nation that bring buyers, sellers and renters together. But for these transactions, the web site contains a warning: "Do not rent or purchase sight-unseen -- that amazing 'deal' may not exist." It also warns against making a payment without meeting an advertiser in person.
Blais, whose own instincts saved her from a rental scam, said that no matter who a prospective renter deals with, it's always wise to be cautious.
"You're gonna believe the scam artists, but you still have to be smart," Blais said "We still don't know where we're gonna live at the end of the month but at least the scam artists didn't get our money."
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter@MattAtBradenton.