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National rental scam reaches NWI
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National rental scam reaches NWI

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LOWELL | A nationwide Craigslist rental scam has targeted some Northwest Indiana homeowners.

A Lowell homeowner, whose house is listed for sale, reported to police June 1 that a neighbor saw the property fraudulently advertised for rent on Craigslist. The fraud perpetrator is enticing potential renters to send or wire deposit money.

The property owner’s real estate co-agent, Trinity McCormick, of Re/Max Integrity Group, said an unauthorized person copied the photos and information from the Greater Northwest Indiana Realtors Association  multiple listing service website and then advertised it as a rental.

McCormick said this is not the first time she has encountered rental fraud. She said a three-bedroom Cedar Lake home, listed as renting for $1,175 per month was copied and advertised for $700 per month. McCormick said Craigslist immediately removed the false ads when notified.

GNIAR has been sending notices to its members warning of the scam. One Valparaiso home, priced for sale at $1.1 million, was fraudulently listed on Craigslist for rent at $800 per month including utilities. The seller was surprised by a “potential renter” who showed up at the home unannounced.

During the past two weeks, a client of Realtor Mitch Harris, of Coldwell Banker in Valparaiso, has "potential renters" showing up at her Portage Township home even talking to her children.

Harris has been inundated with calls from people seeing the fake ad listing the rent at $800 less per month than the actual amount. They call after driving by and seeing his name on the sign. Harris said the perpetrators claim to be the homeowners who are out of town and say they are firing their Realtor for doing a bad job. They ask to have deposit money wired and promise to mail the keys. 

Harris had a similar problem with a Lakes of the Four Seasons last year. He said people were actually showing up and looking in the windows.

“This is not limited to our area,” GNIAR Chief Operating Officer Pat Pullara said. “We have asked that any agent who discovers this to report it to their local police department, contact Craigslist to have it removed and let us know what happened.”

Michael Coil, CEO/President of the Better Business Bureau of Northern Indiana, said in a variation of this scheme someone will send a check for more than the required rental deposit, and then tell the recipient to keep the correct amount and send or wire the remainder back. A few weeks later, the recipient will get a notice that the check bounced.

Coil said a prominent Fort Wayne resident was bilked out of $4,000 when he tried to sublease a property his son no longer needed in a university town.

Over the past five years, Coil said, there have been at least 25 Craigslist schemes reported to his office.  Victims are referred to their local law enforcement agencies.

“All of these things going on are very well orchestrated,” Coil said. “These people know what they are doing. They set up either a website somewhere or a phone line and as soon as law enforcement goes out and tries to find them, the website is gone and the phone number is gone. A number of these are done from out of the country. We have seen some from Russia and a lot from Africa.”

Coil said in any business transaction, it is crucial to know who you are dealing with, the name of the company, the address and phone number and to verify the information.

“In this day and age you can’t trust anybody anymore,” Coil said. “The trust factor is gone when you are doing transactions like this. We always tell people whoever it is you are going to be sending this money you need to do some checking.”

GNIAR has advised Realtor members to check Craigslist and other sites offering rental ads on a regular basis to make sure their listings are not fraudulently cloned and listed for rent.

McCormick suggested that interested renters contact local Realtors as valid rental properties are listed in the GNIAR multiple listing service.

Another problem, McCormick said, is renting from sellers who are in foreclosure or arrears on their mortgage payments. If the owners keep the rental money instead of keeping current, McCormick said, renters can find themselves evicted from the property.

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