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Realty experts warn against scam

Posted: June 30, 2012 1:30 a.m.
Updated: June 30, 2012 1:30 a.m.

The Valencia family had leased out their home and was packing to move when a strange family showed up at their doorstep, prepared to lease the house — for $1,000 less than the agreed-upon price.

“Strangers were showing up at my house,” said the homeowner, who asked not to be identified.

The scenario is being carried out throughout the Santa Clarita Valley and nationwide, as scammers obtain information about homes for sale off websites and then run ads to lease or rent those homes on other websites.

The scammers request advance payments on leases for homes and, in some cases, actually obtain keys to homes — usually vacant ones — and turn them over to the unsuspecting would-be renters.

Scam artists are retrieving property information and photos from sources like multiple listing services, or, Realtors say, and then reposting the information on Craigslist or other websites as a very attractive rental.

“Say I listed the client’s property at $2,500,” said Garo Papazian of Realty Executives in Santa Clarita. “The scammer will list it at only $1,500, triggering a lot of excitement for the property.”

In the case of the Valencia family, the scam artist even created an email account very close to the homeowner’s own, slightly misspelling the man’s first name, the homeowner said.

Papazian notified Craigslist, and the ad was pulled.

Warning signs
Some of the scams are easy to identify, and Craigslist posts a consumer alert above each rental listing to help its users avoid fraud.

Those looking to rent or lease should be wary of: a rental price below market rates for the home or area; contact through email exchanges only; stories about the fictitious owner being relocated out of the area or the country; a request to mail an up-front payment or money order.

Renters should request from those offering rental property as much documentation as possible ID such as business cards, or current mortgage statements, and avoid cash deposits, said Connor MacIvor of RE/MAX of Santa Clarita.

A Realtor can pull a title report for a renter to determine the legal owner of the property, he said.

Experts advise renters to work with legitimate property management firms or Realtors of a given property.

Renters should never hand over money to just anyone who just posts an ad, said Diane Kauzlarich, broker and owner of Triple D Realty in Stevenson Ranch. People should meet with a Realtor or management company for help.

One would-be renter received an elaborate story about a “homeowner” being transferred to Houston.

At the end of a lengthy email was an accurate description of the property on Maplebay Court in Santa Clarita: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths and 1,192 square feet. The $800 rental price included utilities.

In reality, the property that showed up as a rental listing on Craigslist was for sale.

“The property is being sold — not leased — and is in escrow,” said Realtor Danny Brooks of Rodeo Realty.
Brooks found out about the phony listing when a potential renter showed up at the house and called the

Realtor’s phone number listed on the “for sale” sign in front of the home.

Vacant properties
Vacant properties are often most at risk.

“I went to check on a home to find a family that I did not recognize in a house that was completely repainted in odd colors and furnishings,” Papazian said. “The family had to vacate the property and lost $6,000.”

MacIvor had a property listed for sale in Woodland Hills last year and discovered it advertised on Craigslist for $1,400 a month. Had the home really been for rent, it would easily have leased for $3,600 a month, he said.

“A renter met the advertiser at the property and gave him a deposit and got screwed,” he said.

Craigslist does due diligence, MacIvor said. Renters just need to be careful.

In some cases, people move into vacant, bank-owned properties by paying down payments. They may proceed to pay monthly rent to strangers while the bank-owner is unaware.

Papazian has found people living in homes he’s represented and had to take them court to evict them after the renters gave a bogus owner large cash deposits.

He suspects some unscrupulous Realtors who are no longer active gain access to the Superkey lockboxes of homes listed on MLS services.

“You can track down who has accessed the lockboxes,” he said. “But you don’t know which person might have copied the key.”

‘Nothing stolen’
After one local Realtor leased her mother’s home in Happy Valley for $3,000 a month, a listing popped up on Craigslist advertising the property for $1,900 a month.

A handyman working at the house told Realtor Alesia Robertson with Intero Real Estate of Valencia when a couple showed up at the house saying they’d rented it from someone named Pete.

Robertson set the couple straight and discovered the Craigslist ad the couple had responded to contained the same information Robertson had included on the MLS listing — including photos.

“I called the police, but they said they couldn’t do anything because nothing had been stolen,” Robertson said.

“I then called the Federal Trade Commission, who said I could say the photos were stolen but really couldn’t do anything else myself.”

Realtors have had many discussions at Southland Regional Association of Realtors meetings about the dilemma, said Kathy Salisbury of Triple D Realty. Agents say there’s little they can do except report false ads to the websites where they’re posted.

“Agents are starting to put ‘This home is not for rent’ on listings, and on the interior of the front window,” said Dwight Hawkins of Realty Executives in Valencia, “especially on foreclosed homes.”


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