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Q. I came close to being a home rental scam victim. What advice may BBB provide on this current scam?

A. Scammers, never easily deterred, have found a way to associate an address with their shady dealings, and this has led to the birth of even more home rental scams.

Homeowners with multiple properties, consumers, and renters need to be aware of several scams that start with the address of a house, apartment, or property that is currently unoccupied.

Scam reports indicate that many con artists steal online rental listings – including the photos of the house or apartment and the property description – and create their own listings, which look legitimate but contain the scammer's contact information instead of the property owner's or rental agent's. They may work out a deal with you over the phone, insisting that because of an emergency or circumstances outside of their control, they won't be able to meet you in person or show you the property. Instead, they may invite you to drive by and send you a contract by mail or email.

Once you've signed the contract, they ask for your deposit and first month's rent. In return, they will mail you the keys to the property. Your check or wired funds will be received, but no key will ever be sent in return, and the scammers will vanish.

Scammers are also using vacant addresses for even more sinister purposes. Some scammers look for vacant homes that don't seem well-cared for – a "For Sale" sign, lack of an alarm system, and an unkempt lawn may be all it takes. After identifying a target, they actually break into the home, set up their own rental listing and give tours to potential renters. In a few cases, renters have lived in a home and paid a false landlord for months before the truth comes to light.

 

HOW TO AVOID VACANT HOUSE SCAMS

Tips for owners of unoccupied houses:

* Secure all windows and doors to your vacant property. It may seem obvious, but door and window locks can get overlooked – especially if you're busy with the hustle and bustle of a move. Keep intruders out by double checking the locks before you leave the property?

* Maintain your property. A lawn and house that looks cared for will discourage scammers from targeting your property. If you live far away, hire a reputable lawn care company to maintain the property, set up automatic sprinklers, and keep the contact information for a trustworthy local handyman nearby.

* Give an extra key to a friend or neighbor. Ask them to check up on your home periodically. This is also important in case someone needs to give a handyman or the police access to your property.

* Keep your alarm system up and running. This will be a huge protection for your unoccupied home. If you can't afford the expense of an alarm system, it doesn't hurt to keep an alarm system sign posted in the front yard. You could also consider installing a surveillance doorbell that can show you who has been on the premises, in real time.

* Put a hold on the mail. A mailbox overflowing with junk mail is a tell-tale sign no one is home and could attract scammers, thieves, and other suspicious individuals. It's best to have your mail forwarded to your new address or a P.O. Box.

* Consider purchasing vacant home insurance. Most vacant home insurance plans cover acts of vandalism, fires, and weather-related damage. Ask your home insurance provider about getting coverage.

* Notice the warning signs. If you start receiving messages or mail directed to your vacant property with someone else's name or complaints regarding rental agreements or sales you did not make, it's time to investigate the matter further.

 

Tips for renters:

* Confirm the identity of the landlord. A legitimate landlord won't hesitate to show you their ID and will allow you to take a picture. You should be able to confirm they are the real property owner by checking county registers.

* Know local rental prices. If someone offers you a great rental for an extremely low price, proceed with caution.

* See the property first. Never sign a lease or make a deposit without seeing the property in person first.

* Never wire money to a stranger. Request to wire money or send gift cards are an immediate red flag. If you wire money to a stranger and they don't keep up their end of the deal, you'll have no way to get your money back. Legitimate landlords should always accept payment by check.

* Watch out for red flags. If a property has a "for sale" sign, but the "landlord" wants to rent, be wary. It's also suspicious if you find a broken lockbox.

* Use the services of a reputable rental agency. This will give you an added layer of protection as you carry out your search.

* Look out for too-good-to-be-true deals. Do your research and know the normal price range of rental properties in the area.

Jim Winsett is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga.

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