Housing scams can get the best of any renter, home buyer or real estate agent, particularly in hot real estate markets, and Durango is no different.
Certain rackets have been around for years, which can make trouble and more work for agents as well as their clients.
“We’re seeing a major increase in certain types of scam activity,” said Sean Mclain, media director at Coldwell Banker.
One of the newer frauds include wiring schemes, where scammers get to people’s money through emails.
Posing as real estate agents, scammers send emails to agents across the U.S. containing a link to a fake referral that dupes agents into clicking. The hacker then obtains user names and passwords and begins to monitor email exchanges between real estate agents and clients.
“They sit there and collect data, information and contracts, and wait until the last moment, the day before closing, and send false wiring instructions that look very official,” Mclain said. “The client ends up wiring money for the closing to someone in the Ukraine.”
Mclain said this exact scenario happened to one of the agency’s brokers in recent weeks. They caught the problem early on, but the scheme has reportedly cost billions across the nation.
Hackers can cause widespread damage when they get access to just one real estate agent’s email account; they can send emails to other agents as impostors. Unless brokers adopt the habit of calling each person to verify their identity and any emails they send, the effects can be exponential.
As a result, some real estate agencies, including Coldwell Banker, no longer send wiring instructions or financial information via email. It also instructs clients not to wire money without first checking with their real estate agent.
Of course, the more standard housing scams are still around, including scammers that mine real estate agency resources to target the rental community. In those cases, people will troll real estate listings until they find a house that looks vacant, lift the photographs and advertise the house on Facebook or craigslist with contact information and where to send a check.
“We’ve had people drive by a listing and, seeing the real estate sign, call us and say they want to rent the house, but it’s not for rent, it’s for sale,” said Gina Piccoli with Coldwell Banker.
Some agents reported they’ve spotted that particular scheme a little less frequently, possibly because either scammers, renters or both, are getting savvier.
Still, living in a community that is desirable and expensive, a rental hunter might find his judgment clouded by a touch of desperation when evaluating the plausibility of an amazing deal.
In the worst scenarios, people in their haste to secure a house in a competitive market send deposits or email applications containing Social Security numbers and financial details for rentals that don’t exist.
“Really, the only thing to stop it is when people on craigslist realize this and report it as fraud,” Mclain said.
Some of the red flags are obvious, including pricing that’s far below the market rate for its size, amenities and/or location, while other warning signs can be overlooked: for example, if the advertising photographs are too good.
It’s common practice for real estate agents to have professional photos taken for their listings. But it’s more likely that the average landlord or sub-letter in town would just take photos with their phones.
Durango Police Detective Chris Thomsen said when housing or property scams are brought to the department’s attention, they usually involve international hackers, which means there’s little the police can do.
“Never rent a property without seeing it. If you go and see tenants there, that’s a good sign that it’s legitimate. And any attempt for the landlord to remain anonymous is a red flag,” Thomsen said. “Durango, it’s a tough rental market. Apparently, there are not enough houses for all the people looking for them, and people can get desperate and fall for these scams.”