OC Realtor says rental scams are real

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OCEAN CITY — A story in last week’s Gazette warning about rental scams hit home for at least one local real estate agent.

The rental scam artist surfs the Web looking for victims; once a victim is snared, the scammer 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 sham.

Gloria Votta, of RE/MAX at the Shore said the warning hit close to home.

“It was a really close call,” she said, of the scam that was foiled only because numerous potential victims drove past the property in question and noticed the “For Sale” sign in the yard on what they believed was a rental property and called her with questions about the good deal they saw advertised on the Internet.

“The property was for sale, and it was scheduled to close, to go to settlement in two days,” she said. “If the sale had occurred two days earlier, the sign might have been down and I would not have gotten these calls.”

The first call was from a woman who called because Votta’s name was on the sign.

“She asked if that was the property for rent, and I said, ‘No, it’s for sale and it’s going to settle,’” she said. “The lady told me it was on a rental site, so I investigated it. Just in case, I called the owners, and they hadn’t listed it for rent.”

The property was listed on Oodle Marketplace.

“I was freaked out about it,” Votta said. “I was so afraid that someone else had already sent them money. This lady only called me because she saw the sign on the lawn. Maybe someone else didn’t. I still don’t know for sure if someone else was a victim.”

Votta said the calls continued, even after she went to the Ocean City Police Department and reported the problem to Oodle Marketplace and some other sites she came across.

“All of the sudden people started calling me about the property, it was listed on other sites, too,” she said.

One of the calls came from local merchants, who knew the property was listed for sale and Votta was the listing agent.

“They called, they had a friend who was interested and they recognized the property. That really scared me; here it was someone who knew me. I think they were very surprised, too, their friend could have been a victim,” she said.

Votta said the details on the rental listing were almost identical to the sale listing. One of the would-be victims emailed her correspondence they had with the so-called “owner.”

The home, Votta said, attracted a lot of attention. The “owner” was not available to speak on the phone or meet in person, he said, because the family had moved to New York. The owner said the home was in a nice neighborhood and encouraged would-be tenants to “drive by” and check it out.

“They listed it with twice the square footage, it’s a small cottage, that might have been a clue, but otherwise it looked like a great deal,” Votta said.

The owner had a nifty story, she said.

“They had been transferred to New York City, the house wasn’t in foreclosure; they were just looking for good Christian people to care for it as their own. They wanted someone responsible, they allowed pets. They said the family could stay as long as they wanted.

“The man claimed to be an engineer and part-time pastor,” she said. “He said he and his wife, who was sick, had children in college. They were looking for God-fearing people such as themselves to rent the house. They thought about selling it, but decided to rent it instead. It was quite a story. They even wanted to approve the buyer before accepting payment.”

Votta said the email was chilling.

“Even after I called the rental websites, some of them took three days to get it down,” she said. “It goes up pretty fast, but it doesn’t come down so easily. It looked like a lovely year-round rental. It’s a nice cottage, who wouldn’t want to rent it? A single, on a quiet street, it would have been a wonderful rental.

“It’s very, very scary,” she said. “There was a little bit of English mangled in the emails that came back from this guy; if you looked carefully you could notice that, but for the most part it looked legitimate.

“Thank goodness we live in a small town where everyone knows everyone,” she said. “Thank goodness that lady drove by and saw my sign because she was ready to send a check. As the saying goes, ‘but for the grace of God,’ this could have been a disaster for someone.”

Capt. Steve Ang of the Ocean City Police Department said scammers are on the prowl and they are also getting increasingly more tech-savvy. 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 or another rental site. Either way, they troll for victims and too often make a catch.

Votta noted that the Oodle Marketplace website includes a warning, “If interested, best to meet in person and in a public place.”

“No one talked to this man, no one could meet him at all, he just wanted all kinds of information about the person wanting to rent the house and a check,” she said.

Another warning states: “Always meet and transact in person. If someone is not available to meet in person due to illness, military deployment, or travel, or they ask you to wire money or ship merchandise, this is often a sign of fraud.”

“The man said his wife was sick, they had moved,” Votta said. “No one would have ever met this owner nor talk to him on the phone. The house was a great deal, unfortunately, too good to be true.

“Someone could be lured in by the story. Maybe someone would overlook the warning, if it all seemed to make sense. ‘They seemed like nice people,’ that’s what the lady who called me told me.

“I went over to the house and found a man in the yard; he was on his lunch hour and checking the house out for a friend who saw the rental listing online and was ready to book it. He didn’t seem at all concerned until I told him the real story. I can’t tell you how many people must have looked at this house as a rental.”

Ang repeated what he told the Gazette last week; 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.”

Votta said the experience was frightening.

“Please be careful if you have a house listed for sale, check the rental sites and ask your Realtor to check rental sites,” she said. “Beware, it’s very frightening, but this is what we deal with. The Web is a wonderful marketing tool but we all have to be careful.”


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