Homes left empty by the ongoing foreclosure crisis – and people who need them – are turning out to be easy prey for local scam artists.
Consumer protection attorneys are advising would-be renters to do their homework.
Anna Marie Johnson, executive director at Nevada Legal Services, said that agency is seeing a steady flow of scam victims who have seen rental property postings on Craigslist or a similar website. The problem, she said, is that they ended up renting an empty home from a scam artist, not the actual property owner or management company.
“They’ve changed the locks; they’re advertising them for rent,” she said. “They’re getting people to pay large amounts – for a security deposit, first month’s rent and whatever else they can get out of them. It’s a huge problem, actually.”
One easy step people can take to protect themselves is to contact the Nevada Real Estate Division, or use the agency’s online look-up service to see if the person they are dealing with is a licensed real estate agent or property manager.
At the Las Vegas office of Nevada Legal Services, senior attorney Kris Bergstrom, who is handling a lot of these cases, said the best course of action to avoid getting scammed, is to check county records to see who really owns the home you want to rent.
“Go to the County Recorder’s Office,” she said, “and look up the address of the house and see – is it in foreclosure? Who’s listed as the actual owner? And does that match up with the person that they’ve been dealing with?”
They do try to recover victims’ deposits in these cases, Bergstrom said – but it’s rare.
“A lot of times it’s actually pretty hard to catch these guys,” she said. “They don’t use their real name, they’ll give people a phone number to contact them, but it will be some kind of burner phone – and a lot of the people are finding these houses on Craigslist or something like that, so they don’t have an ad, or any kind of contact number.”
For most scam victims who have moved into these homes, Bergstrom said, attorneys usually can buy a little time from the actual owner for them to find a new place.
The Real Estate Division’s look-up service is online at elicenseb.irondata.com.