WILLIAMSBURG — A rental real estate scam that local Realtors have seen before is back.
According to Williamsburg Area Association of Realtors executive director Linda Kinsman the scheme last appeared about two years ago and invloves properties for sale. Scammers lift information from listings, then create a fake rental ad. The ruse occurs when the victim puts up a security deposit.
The scam pirates information from legitimate sales listings.
"Our listings are used, and the properties are listed as rentals on craigslist," Kinsman said. "I've seen where they asked for $800 to $1,000."
Because the "owners" are often conveniently "out of state," scammers ask that money be wired to them and they'll send the keys upon receipt. As a notice on craigslist warns, consumers should never wire anyone money in connection with a real estate transaction.
Kinsman recently sent out a notice to area agents mentioning that the scam has been popping up in Hampton Roads, including greater Williamsburg.
The FBI has been aware of similar practices for at least four years. A 2010 notice from the FBI details another scam.
Postings from legitimate real estate websites are altered and reposted. Scammers use the broker's real name to create a fake e-mail, giving the fraud the appearance of legitimacy. When the victim sends an e-mail, they receive a response from someone claiming to be the owner. The victim is then asked to send money to the owner in a foreign country or another state.
Lisa Remington-Smith, an agent with Prudential Towne Realty, has seen the scam first-hand. She was contacted by a woman inquiring about a rental property for which Remington-Smith was listed as the agent. Remington-Smith explained that the property was for sale, and she was the broker for the owner.
She then asked the woman where she saw the listing and was directed to Hottags.com.
"All the information for the property was there and I was listed as the agent. Even my picture was there," she said Thursday.
Remington-Smith posted on the site that the property was not for rent and that she was the seller's agent. She also contacted Hottags to have the listing removed.
"I looked the next day and I thought it had been handled," she said. "But then I got an email from someone saying they were the owner and that they were listing again after trying to use an agent and that they were in Florida."
She said she told her clients they should report the case to the FBI's Internet Crime Division. The bureau has a website for reporting such crimes at http://www.IC3.gov/.
Remington-Smith knows same property had been used to try to run the scam on at least one other person.
"A client told me her brother had been looking for some place to rent here and couldn't find anything, so he tried this listing," she said.
The brother went to look at the property, but emailed the "owner" that it was locked and he couldn't get in.
"He was told the same story about Florida and that if he wired some money they would send him the keys. Fortunately, he was suspicious enough to end it there," Remington-Smith said.
The giveaway is that most scams lure victims by offering something that seems too good to be true. Both Kinsman and Remington-Smith said the fake rental properties are usually offered for far less than a comparable property would actually rent for in greater Williamsburg.