GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Rental scams online are nothing new. However, a Grand Rapids realtor warns of a more sophisticated scheme. It starts with people posing as property owners or property managers.
"They'll meet at the property. They'll have a way to have gotten keys, made duplicates and let you in through the front door. Or they can break a window and break in just like any other theft," Pete Bruinsma, with Grand Rapids-based Life Cycle Property Management said.
After the walk-through, the thieves take a cash deposit.
A woman from Grand Rapids said she almost fell for one of the more common scams.
"I would have went ahead and sent him the money because I thought it was a great deal," she said.
Fortunately, her friends warned her. We'll call her "Ava," and she asked to remain anonymous because she moved from a violent situation not long ago with her 2-year-old, and they're looking for fresh start. Ava said she started her search online.
"We found a house on Craigslist that said it was a 2 bedroom, full basement house, fenced in backyard in a great neighborhood for $450 a month, all utilities included," Ava said free utilities led to the first red flag.
She said the so-called owner urged her to send him money so he could send her the key.
"He told me that he was doing missionary work in Africa with his daughter and his wife, and they just wanted someone to take care of their home," Ava recalled an email exchange.
Bruinsma said his company stopped posting to the site after a few shady incidents.
"We stopped using Craigslist years ago," he said.
He said some of his company’s properties were duplicated, and people began calling about them. He said "more and more people are falling prey to these scams" because the market is so competitive.
Bruinsma explained, "No proper landlords or property management companies ask you to wire money."
So, to avoid becoming a victim, he suggests you take a closer look before handing over your hard-earned money. Bruinsma said that other than the photos, the wording of the ads isn’t always duplicated. Look for misspelling. Out-of-the-ordinary requests should throw up a red flag. Ask for proof of ownership or proof they manage the property. Finally, you can find out who owns the property through county records which are often found online.
Bruinsma said, "The big thing is just trust your gut and beware that there are going to be scams out there. And if it's too good to be true, it probably is not true."
Ava said she and her daughter are still at square one, and they stay wherever they can.
"So we're still looking. Not gonna let one bad thing knock us off. But at the same note, it needs to be brought to somebody's attention or to everybody's attention that it's not a game," she said.
Bruinsma recommends these sites for anyone looking for a rental:
LifecyclePM.com, Facebook, RPOA's Weekly Rental Guide (MIRentalGuide.com), ShowMeTheRent.com, Lovely (LiveLovely.com), Zillow and Trulia
Bruinsma said watch out for the last two sites because people with bad intentions may "'scrape' from Craigslist" and post to those sites. If you suspect an ad is fraudulent report it to the website administrator.
In a statement, Zillow communications manager Amanda Woolley said, "We have put a significant amount of resources and technology into finding and preventing fraud across the Zillow Rental Network."
She continued, "We have a dedicate team of more than 20 employees, including developers, who are focused on building fraud detection and prevention capabilities. Additionally, we put a large emphasis on educating our users about the existence of fraud and how to prevent it, while empowering them to report it directly to our team. While I can’t get into the specifics of our technology, we think we have the best fraud prevention and detection capabilities in the industry."