Police warn: Beware of rental scams

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OCEAN CITY — The rental scam artist takes the money and runs, leaving a would-be vacationer in the lurch when they arrive at the shore and discover the whole deal was a shame.

It’s been a problem in Ocean City in the past, and it could happen here again.

The scam artist, according to Capt. Steve Ang of the Ocean City Police Department, surfs the Web looking for victims. Scammers are also getting increasingly more tech-savy, he said. The scammer now poaches information from the owner of a rental or sale listing on the Internet, or simply cuts and pastes details to Craig’s List. Either way, they troll for victims and too often make a catch.

“They would look at a sale listing, cut and paste the information and post it as a rental listing,” he said.

Would-be renters are instructed to send or wire a check. When the agreed upon summer week rolls around, they arrive to pick up the key at a local real estate office.

Except there is no rental; the deal was a fraud and the “deposit” is long gone.

“We had this happen two years ago, we almost had an incident again just recently,” Ang said. “They continue to trickle in. It’s a problem nationwide, and in our region, the summer rental is a problem. We have a lot of rental properties, and the rentals are for a short period of time. People try to take advantage.”

A recent scam was foiled before a victim was ensnared.

“Realtors have become more aware and they are watching out for each other,” he said.

A few weeks ago, a Realtor noticed something fishy concerning a competitor’s sale listing on Craig’s List and was immediately suspicious.

“So he called the other Realtor, and they prevented someone from becoming a victim,” Ang said.

“It’s the old saying, ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,’” he said. “A lot of times they price the scam really low. You have to know the market, if the price is very low for a peak week in the summer, watch out. Check out some neighboring listings and see how it compares.”

Mistakes, poor grammar and misspellings often give away a scam, but not always, Ang said.

“If they cut and paste everything, you might not notice,” he said. “You really have to be careful if you use an Internet site. Sometimes it’s obvious it’s not legitimate, but not always.”

The best thing, he said, is to use a local licensed Realtor and deal through a local office.

“You should go in, face-to-face with the Realtor, that’s the safest way to avoid becoming a victim,” he said. “You can use a ‘rental by owner’ type of website, but you take a big chance. If you go to the local Realtor, actually see the property and sign a legitimate lease, you are a lot better off. There is a reason these people get paid to provide a service and it’s worth it to pay them to provide the service.

“It’s in the best interest of the tenant and the property owner to use a Realtor. Owners can become victims, too. Any time you try to undermine the service provided by a Realtor to save the money you can become the victim of a scam.”

Nick Marotta, of Prudential Fox and Roach’s Battersea Road office and past president of the Ocean City Board of Realtors, said Ang is correct.

“When you use a Realtor, the credentials are there,” he said. “The problem is not widespread, but it does happen. When you use email only, and never meet the person or talk to them, you can run into a problem. You are much better off using a licensed Realtor, a trained professional.

“Otherwise the credibility is in question,” he said. “You can go on the OCBOR website, OCBOR.com and check the Realtor and the office out. When you send a deposit, it goes through the office. You have some protection. You know who you are dealing with.”

Websites, such as For Rent By Owner, FRBO and others, he said, can work out fine or be a nightmare. Using a Realtor, the worst that can happen is a double-booking, but that can be remedied.

“Your deposit is not lost,” he said. “A Realtor is much more secure and safe. You want to deal one-on-one with a live body.”

The OCBOR, he said, is a “wonderful organization” that goes the extra mile to protect everyone involved in a transaction.

“They encourage the Realtors to work with each other, and the customers,” he said. “It really is the safest way to conduct business. You sign a lease and you have someone watching out for you.”

“A few years ago we had a family that mailed a deposit to a scammer,” Ang said.

The family showed up a local real estate office and the scam was uncovered.

“The Realtors did everything they could to help them,” he said.

Finding accommodations for the family at the last minute was easier than getting the money back.

“The money was gone,” he said. “We have no way of getting the money back. In a scam, the money quickly goes overseas. You might as well stand on the beach and throw it in the ocean, it’s gone. In this particular case, the Realtor was able to find a place for the family, but on a peak week, that’s not always the case.”

Scammers are becoming more sophisticated, Ang said.

“They’re actually hacking into rental websites,” he said. “The scammers know that people are looking. The Internet is filled with opportunities for scams. The pictures are there, the information, you really have to be careful. We live in a safe community with beautiful, high-end properties to rent and these scammers are out there trying to take advantage.”

Listing on Craig’s List could be dangerous for the property owner, too, Ang said.

“You don’t know who is going to show up, and you don’t have a Realtor representing you,” he said. “A Realtor does a lot more than just collect the money and hand out keys. They help to facilitate a smooth transaction to make your stay more enjoyable and they take some of the worry off the owner, too.

“We don’t want to see anyone get scammed,” he said. “People need to use common sense. We’re in a bad economy and people are trying to save money. You have to do your research, really think about the rental. If the property next door is renting for $6,000 a week and you see a property for $6,000 for the season, watch out. Ask yourself ‘why would that be?’”

It’s a “buyer beware” rental world.

“Our economy is not the greatest, you have to watch out,” he said. “Be aware of what the market will bear, be careful. Deal with a licensed Realtor.”

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