Newlyweds Richard and Lucy Padron moved to Charleston for work and to be closer to family.
“It’s in a great area,” Lucy explained of their new home purchase west of the Ashley River. She grew up in Mt. Pleasant.
The couple closed on their first home in June. Two months later, their neighbor came by with disturbing news.
“Our neighbor said the house was listed on a popular rental website,” Richard explained.
The house wasn’t for rent.
Using the former realtor’s pictures, someone else was posing as the owner and was peddling the home as a $900 rental. The person who listed the rental on Zillow claimed to live out of state. The neighbor contacted the lister via email to investigate. The person who listed the home instructed the neighbor to send him the $900 deposit and first month’s rent. Once the money was sent, he claimed he would send the keys in the mail.
“The email said feel free to walk in the backyard and look in some windows,” Lucy explained. “That was my biggest thing. People are going to be coming on our property and looking into our house.”
Several people showed up to inspect the home. One couple went into the backyard. One woman made it to the front door when she realized the listing was fake.
The couple finally posted “No Trespassing” signs.
In hot rental markets these sorts of scams work because eager renters will send the money hoping they found a great deal, according to Eric Wetherington. He runs New Heights Property Management. He says be leery of listings that boast a quick move-in; no background checks; no credit checks; and no tour of the property.
He says fake listings will often require payment without showing the property, and once the scammer has the money, renters never hear from them again.
According to Zillow, most scams come from users in foreign countries who claim to be interested in purchasing or renting out a home. Be wary of claims from people who are contacting you from abroad because they are missionaries, U.N. workers, or in the military.
In a statement to News 2 a Zillow spokesperson wrote:
“Zillow goes to great lengths to police activity and fully inform our users of the existence of scams and how to protect themselves. Our customer support team monitors activity on the site in a number of different ways and if a rental listing is found to be fraudulent, it is immediately removed from Zillow. Zillow has a “Beware of Rental Scams” page on the site, telling users to look out for red flags like requests for wire transfers and long-distance inquiries, and directing them to our fraud and scams page, which provides valuable information about how to avoid fraudulent listings.”
But one check is missing to stop fake listings. Many of the popular rental sites don’t require proof of ownership when someone lists a property.
Wetherington says there’s been no push to change regulations.
“The push has been on educating the public to be careful,” he explained. In the last three years he says his staff has pivoted to spends time daily making sure none of their listing pictures have been stolen and used on fake ads.
One extra step to take to protect pictures from being stolen is adding a watermark to the images.
If you find a fraudulent listing on Zillow, you can report it by clicking “Report Listing” and selecting “Listing seems to be fraudulent or illegal” on the listing page.
And the Padrons warn if the listing sounds too good to be true, it’s probably not a real listing.