Scammers target renters searching online

Bogus listings created by hijacking real ones

SAN ANTONIO – Renters beware, scammers are targeting people looking online for rental properties.

After suffering a stroke and losing his job in New York, Gilbert Meneses and his wife wanted a fresh start back home in San Antonio. What they got was a rough start, ripped off by scammers targeting people searching rental listings online.

"You hear about it and you know it goes on, but when it actually happens to you, that's a real eye opener," he said.

Meneses was snagged by an old, classic scam that's seeing a resurgence in cities around the country.

It started when he was long-distance house hunting online. He found a picture-perfect place posted on the popular, legitimate real estate site Trulia.

"It was a one-story with no steps, which I need," he said. "It has a lot of pictures. The house was gorgeous."

The ad described the four-bedroom, two-bath, 2,344 square-foot home as being in a gated community with a large island kitchen and beautifully landscaped backyard.

"And it was $800 a month," Meneses said. "I couldn't believe it."

Turns out, he shouldn't have. It really was too good to be true.

"That should be at least $2,000 a month," said Hoppie Cantwell, with Home Locators and Management.

"They (scammers) are feeding on someone's need to find housing quickly, and it's such a good deal, they don't want to lose it," he said. "The problem is it's not a deal. It's a scam."

Complaints are rising around the country, as the scammers take advantage of an improving real estate market. In a hot market, price rises, creating a perfect opportunity to burn consumers who are looking for a bargain price.

When Meneses responded to the online ad, he heard from a person claiming to be a reverend who was looking for a responsible, trustworthy tenant to maintain her home while her family was away in Virginia for a few years.

After a few emails, Meneses wired the $800 security deposit by Western Union, as requested. He later sent another $400, half of the first month's rent.

"It was a pastor and her family," Meneses said. "They were away and they were just wanting a good family to take care of their home."

He never had a prayer of moving into the house. It wasn't for rent at all. It was, however, for sale by the real owner who had posted a real "For Sale" ad on another real estate website.

"What's happening is the scammers are actually cloning that information, putting it back on the market with their contact information at half the price," Cantwell said.

The fake reverend was particularly tricky, using the real homeowner's name and providing a FedEx tracking number for the keys that never arrived.

"They scammed me for $1,200," Meneses said.

All he got was continued excuses and lies.

Meneses shared his story in hopes of helping others avoid the same trouble.

Red Flags of a Rental Scam

  • Poor grammar or spelling
  • Requests to wire money by Western Union
  • Absentee owners who are unavailable to meet or call
  • Not requiring proof of employment or credit check on tenant
  • Price that seems too good to be true

"No. 1, always tour the property. See what you're going to be living in," Cantwell advised. "Bottom line is to see somebody face to face. It will save you a lot of grief."

Cantwell advises checking the public tax records and comparing the property owner's mailing address to the one requesting money. Also, search the property's address online to see if other listings surface with different information.

About the Author:

As a consumer reporter, Marilyn is all about helping people stay safe and save a buck. Since coming to KSAT in 1985, she’s covered everything from crime to politics, winning awards for her coverage of the Mexican Mafia, Oklahoma tornadoes, children’s transplants, an investigation into voting irregularities and even a hit-and-run Santa Claus.