Tips for Identifying Real Estate Fraud

Realtors report squatters in foreclosed homes try to rent them to unsuspecting tenants.

With its still-copious vacant units, our region is prime real estate for rental scam predators, according to Las Vegas and Southern Nevada experts.

And it’s not just an online financial attack anymore.  It’s flesh and bones dangerous.

Coincidentally, a local Las Vegas realtor, said she recently experienced a rental scam encounter of the scariest kind. Here’s how she described the situation:

“Just a week ago, I had a prospective tenant call me and tell me that my sign was in the window of a property near UNLV, and it said ‘For Rent.’ While the prospective tenant was on the phone with me, another man came out of the property and approached him. He claimed to be the maintenance man for the owner, and he offered to take the man inside to see the house.

I told the prospective tenant to roll up his window, hold on to his wallet and drive away quickly because this is a scam artist renting out a vacant or foreclosed home that does not belong to him. Interestingly, the scam artist went so far as to steal a Realtor sign to use to try to make his rental story sound legitimate, I guess. However, he was just holed up in the property, waiting for people to pull up and then coming out to talk to them. I’m sure he never thought that the prospective tenant would call my office before the scam artist saw them and came outside to talk.”

This month, a law takes effect regarding squatters that makes it a felony for a person to occupy a home without the express consent of the owner.  That means a lease signed by the actual owner.

“As badly as I feel for the tenants who get taken advantage of, this scam is not going to go away any time soon. It’s the responsibility of the tenant to make sure they are renting from the real owner. The only way I can advise them to be fully ensured of that is to only rent homes through licensed property management companies.”

The easiest way to verify ownership is to go online and enter the person’s name and company name.  It’s free. If the person is a legitimate, licensed property manager offering a home for lease, they will be listed as a licensee in good standing with the Nevada Real Estate Division.

Also, the home’s address can be entered into the Clark County assessor site for a search to find the owner of record.

“One thing that I believe has allowed this to become such an issue is that our utility providers do not require much for utilities to be turned on at a property, as far as actual proof that a person has a right to occupy a home,” the realtor said. “My suggestion to our local utilities would be that a notarized document signed by the actual owner of record would be required in order for another person who is not on the deed to get the utilities turned on in their name. A lease is no longer sufficient evidence of a legitimate tenant.”

Keith Lynam, president of the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors, said he intends to address the safety issue by working closer with Las Vegas police.

“It’s becoming so prevalent in this town,” Lynam said. “It’s time we start working with Metro. Squatters are one thing. I’m more concerned about bodily harm. (We need to act) before something tragic happens.”

Until that time, Lynam advises prospective renters to use common sense.

“The worst thing is not listening to your instincts and not saying something’s wrong,” Lynam said. “You’ve got to follow your gut. I know that’s not much advice, but your stomach is usually a lot further ahead than your brain.  We have a lot of squatter stuff that is bothersome, but we’re going to start working with Metro to address this (safety) problem.”

It may be somewhat less scary on the cyberfront of rental scams, but it’s certainly as fiscally damaging. And with each new rental snare created on the web, chances become more likely that it will be you and not “the other guy” who gets trapped and taken.

Lynam’s advice on following your gut applies equally to website offers. Many ask prospective renters to send money without having met anyone or having seen the apartment.  But it’s not common to pay a lot of money for something sight-unseen. So, if a landlord expects you to pay a lot before you lease an apartment, it’s a reason to be concerned. Experts say not to rely on promises or photos, but to physically visit any apartment you’re considering renting. According to a warning on Craigslist, not following this one rule accounts for 99 percent of scam attempts.

Here’s what to keep in mind when you’re looking for the perfect rental:

  • The scammer can be a bona fide landlord or, more likely, an impostor.
  • A tenant who’s vacating his apartment might pretend to be the landlord.
  • He might collect fees and security deposits up front. Once the prospects realize they’ve been scammed, the scammer has usually vanished with their money.
  • Using a reputable apartment search website doesn’t mean you can’t get scammed by unscrupulous landlords or people posing as landlords who manage to get their listings onto these sites.

Here are some common scam scenarios to be aware of:

  • The landlord seems too eager to lease the apartment to you. Many landlords want to know your credit score, and they may also want more information about you, such as a criminal background check and employment verification. If a landlord doesn’t seem interested in any form of tenant screening or appears too eager to negotiate the rent and other lease terms with you, it’s suspicious.
  • You’re asked to pay an unusually high security deposit or too many upfront fees. If the landlord wants a higher security deposit than what’s required by law, or if upfront fees seem excessive to you, it could be a sign that the landlord wants to take your money and run.
  • You feel too much sales pressure. If a landlord acts too pushy, it can be a red flag.
  • You’re told you don’t need a lawyer.  It’s true you don’t need a lawyer to review your lease, and generally speaking, it’s in a landlord’s best interest for you to skip lawyer review and just take the rental. But when a landlord makes a point of saying that you don’t need a lawyer, it could be a sign that the landlord is trying to rush you into signing the lease and handing over money, perhaps because he doesn’t really own the building or already leased the apartment to someone else.
  • You’re told you don’t need a lease.  It’s true you don’t need a lease to live in an apartment. Although renting an apartment under a lease is the most typical situation, but a month-to-month rental agreement is fairly common. But only you know what you need. If a landlord tries to get money from you without considering that you might want a lease, think twice. It could be that the “landlord” doesn’t have any lease to show you.
  • The landlord has a convenient excuse for not being able to meet you or show the property. The person behind a listing might say he’s out of the country indefinitely or that he won’t return until after you would need to agree to the rental and pay money.

Some final cautionary advice for prospective renters:

“If it sounds too good to be true, it’s definitely a scam. Period!”