Law enforcement, state leaders warn residents to be aware of rental scams

VANDALIA — On July 19, Vandalia resident Bianca May heard a knock on her door. On the other side was a woman who said she had messaged with May about viewing a rental unit on May’s property.

The only problem? May had never spoken to the woman.

Soon after, three other families showed up at the property with a similar story.

“I had never seen or talked to these people before,” May said, standing outside the property located on Donald Roadway W. “It was clear something was going on.”

An experienced landlord, May’s property was for rent, but the hopeful renters at her home were not responding to May’s listing. Instead, they were responding to a fraudulent Facebook Marketplace listing that had taken May’s address and photos to use in a rental scam. The aim of the scam is to collect application fees or rent on the false listing and then to cease contact the with renter before they realize the scammer does not own the property.

In May’s case, the scammer was charging $60 per application. In May’s legitimate listing, posted through Avail.co, applications are free.

“The first girl that came by was so crushed because everyone is so desperate for housing right now,” May said. “This is like taking food off of someone’s table. Food and shelter are basic needs. How low can you go?”

Though Cass County Sheriff Richard Behnke reported that he believed May’s compliant was the first rental listing scam his office has handled, similar scams are on the rise both in the state and nationwide.

Wednesday, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel issued a consumer alert on rental scams to explain what they are and how to avoid them. According to the consumer alert, there are two types of popular rental scams: hijacked ads and phantom rentals.

Hijacked ads, which is what happened with May’s listing, occur when scammers copy a listing from a legitimate real estate listing and place it on a different website. It all looks legitimate, but in reality, the bad actor is promoting a property they are not affiliated with.  Phantom rentals occur when scammers make up a listing altogether in an effort to cheat an unsuspecting renter out of money. These will often offer rent that is far lower than other listings in the area.

Nessel listed the following as red flags that can indicate a rental is viewing fraudulent listing:

  • The renter is asked to wire money — Once money is sent through a wire transfer, there is no way to get it back, according to the AG’s office. This includes being asked to use payment apps, gift cards or cryptocurrency. Scammers know this and will try to rely on this uncommon form of payment to collect a security deposit or a rent payment.
  • The renter is asked to provide a security deposit or first month’s rent before touring or signing a lease — No legitimate rental company or landlord will ask a renter to pay up front for an apartment or house they have not seen. Renters also should not be asked to provide a payment prior to finalizing a lease, aside from an application fee.
  • The renter finds the listing under different names — If the same ad is listed on multiple sites, the AG’s office recommends verifying the details are consistent across listings. If the same ad is listed under a different name, it may be a scam.
  • The renter learns the landlord is out of town — If initial steps are taken, and it is time to move to meeting, but the contact suddenly informs a renter they are unavailable and will be using someone else to finalize a lease and get the keys, a listing may be a scam. Some scammers will go as far as making a fake key for a property.

“So many people are navigating the housing market right now, which makes it even more important to remain vigilant against scams,” Nessel said. “Never pay for a rental property without seeing it in person and meeting with the landlord. You should also search the listing online to ensure it wasn’t copied fraudulently. Do your homework and trust your instincts if something feels off about a listing — even if it offers a big savings in your rent payment.”

Roughly 20 miles away from May’s home in Vandalia, City of Niles Director of Public Safety Jim Millin said his office has handled “one or two” rental scams over the last couple of years. To avoid such scams, he recommended renters contact their city’s building department to verify the person they are in contact with is the owner or landlord of the home.

“I wouldn’t say it happens a lot, but we have had a couple,” Millin said of rental scams. “A person could also check with a local landlord association, which should be able to assist if the landlord is part of that organization or known by the organization.”

If a renter or property owner becomes aware of a scam, they should report it to their local law enforcement agency and to the Federal Trade Commission.

Since learning her property listing was used in a scam, May said she wants to raise awareness about these scams in the hopes of protecting both renters and landlords alike.

“I don’t think I’m unique, but like a lot of people, I’m saying that I never thought this would happen to me,” she said. “I want people to be aware of this and to be aware there is something we can do to protect ourselves against these people. We have to get smarter in this very sad world.”

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