Most Eagle County residents are aware of the monumental struggle that has become the local search for housing. Many renters are now becoming all too familiar with an array of scammers attempting to take advantage of an already slim housing market at the expense of scrambling residents-to-be. Vail Police suggest those on the housing hunt take caution.
For quick, free and easy access to the local rental market, it’s clear why many potential renters take to sites like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace or VRBO. A new dream winter rental, someone’s very first apartment, a rental with room for the whole family can all be at one’s fingertips through websites like these. However, disguised among the legitimate housing options are fraudulent listings with scheming scammers on the other side of the screen.
Vail Police Department detective Greg Schwartz suggested potential renters take caution while on the hunt for their next home. He said that identifying red flags is an important way people can protect themselves from scammers.
Red flag one: No in-person viewing
Red flag number one? Schwartz said not being able to physically see the property can be a big indication of a scam.
“There are absentee landlords, but not as many as you’d really think,” Schwartz said.
He explained that in many cases, fraudulent landlords will deny renters an in-person showing of the property, saying it’s currently occupied. Despite this, scammers can convince aspiring renters to send money in order to “secure the space” for their move-in.
Schwartz said that recently, a case came to the Vail Police Department with a similar type of scam. In this situation, the scammer had even provided the prospective renter a local address, so he could drive by to view the property despite its occupancy.
“So, when he went to move in, a neighbor said, ‘Oh no, that place isn’t for rent. I know the owners and I know the people who live there and yeah, they’re not renting it out,’ and it was kind of a shock,” Schwartz said.
The detective advised against sending money to any projected landlord without an in-person viewing of the property.
“Really, truly, if you’re not able to see the property, it’s a scam,” Schwartz said. “And by ‘see the property,’ I mean ‘enter the property,’ not just pictures.”
With populations flocking to Eagle County for the winter, Schwartz said scammers are largely targeting people who are coming to the valley from elsewhere and might not even be able to physically view a property anyway. He explained that in these situations, renters must be extra careful to verify a rental property’s legitimacy before sending hard-earned money someone else’s way.
Schwartz said writing a check to a physical local address or having someone meet a landlord or property manager at the site are good ways to legitimize the transaction.
Red flag two: Suspicious payment requests
Another red flag that Schwartz warned those looking for rental properties about is the landlord’s preferred payment method. Payment methods that allow a recipient to remain more anonymous should raise renters’ caution, he said.
“What (the scammers) do is they advertise the property and then they require payment only either through Zelle or a direct wire transfer to a bank account,” Schwartz said. “Usually, the bank accounts that those deposits are going into have been opened fraudulently and the money is then transferred out pretty quickly.”
It’s possible for law enforcement to track where a deposit goes once it is sent to a potential scammer, but Schwartz said the process is rather difficult. In an attempt to remain untraceable, scammers typically bounce money around from account to account.
“We write a search warrant for the first account and yep, that money was there for three days and then it’s transferred to another account,” Schwartz said. “That can kind of go on and on for a while.”
After tracking funds from account to account, Schwartz explained that oftentimes, the money finally lands in a bank account with a foreign IP address. Because local police do not have the jurisdiction to write search warrants to foreign banks, the detective said searches typically fizzle once money hits a foreign bank account.
Another payment method Schwartz warned renters about are gift cards. Many scammers, in an effort to remain even more untraceable, request that renters send their payments via gift card. Schwartz said this request should be considered an immediate red flag.
“No real landlord is going to require 10 Best Buy gift cards for rent, you know,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said renters seeking housing need to use their better judgment and understand what requests seem legitimate and what requests might tip off a scam. Things not completely adding up is another red flag Schwartz advised renters to be wary of.
Red flag three: Dissonance
An example of things not adding up with a landlord could be name consistency, Schwartz said.
“A lot of the time when a fraudulent landlord is requesting Zelle payments or wire transfers to bank accounts, the names don’t match whatever name they’ve been emailing back and forth with—it doesn’t match the information being provided,” Schwartz said. “So, that should be a significant red flag any potential tenant should look out for.”
Finding inconsistencies like names not adding up across accounts can take a keen eye. A media release from the Vail Police Department said that scammers targeting Eagle County renters are doing whatever they can to make themselves seem more legitimate and get sent money. For example, securing a local burner number may be enough to fool a prospective tenant.
“Many scammers use a local phone number generated by web-based Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services that are available to anyone without any verification of identity required,” the release read. “Officers have taken several complaints initiated via a Craigslist ad which resulted in prospective renters wiring money to scammers.”
Rental red flag four: It’s too good to be true
The final red flag Schwartz warns against is when a listing simply seems too good to be true. Perhaps the cost is hundreds or maybe thousands lower than similar properties in the area, maybe it’s the fact that they’d allow five dogs without question or maybe it’s a location so desirable that it seems strange to even have a shot at it. Regardless, dreams of the perfect rental can come shattering to reality when scammers are in the mix.
“If it seems too good to be true, it is,” Schwartz said.
Renting online may seem much more intimidating with scammers attempting to take advantage of an already difficult market. However, Schwartz said law enforcement is always available to help. Whether it’s the Vail Police Department or another law enforcement agency in the valley, Schwartz said officers would be happy to review property advertisements and landlord interactions to see if they can spot anything “fishy.”
Schwartz said officers can help renters try to spot red flags among listings and help them determine how to move forward.
“We’re always available to help,” Schwartz said. “If anyone has questions before they send that money, and in general, you know, no one should be sending money to someone they don’t know or haven’t met or haven’t spoken to.”
Precaution in situations like finding rentals is crucial, Schwartz said.
“I think a lot of it is driven by the housing shortage that we have,” Schwartz said. “People are willing to go for something too good to be true, which is obviously unfortunate that we’re going through that valley-wide.”
While many may struggle to remove their rose-colored glasses when it comes to scam rental listings, it may be helpful to remember that law enforcement success in catching culprits of rental housing scams is incredibly slim.
Scammers tapping into the local housing market are typically not from around here, Schwartz said.
“A lot of these scams are international, you know, just kind of like the Nigerian prince scam from back in the day,” Schwartz said.
The “Nigerian prince scam” that Schwartz referred to is a popular version of the ancient “Spanish prisoner swindle,” both advance-fee scams, which involve scammers approaching recipients and convincing them to send money in order to retrieve an even larger sum of money, which of course, is never retrieved or returned. According to CNBC, the “Nigerian prince scam” still yields over $700,000 for scammers annually.
Schwartz said scammers across oceans can be successful in taking locals’ money because they have done their research. He said they likely understand that the valley is a housing hotspot and know people may be willing to go to further odds for what they think will be their future housing.
Similarly, with a little extra effort, Schwartz explained how scammers make their listings seem more believable.
“Typically, the person renting out the apartment fraudulently will take over somebody else’s post, or they’ll get pictures from Zillow so it adds a level of legitimacy to it,” Schwartz said. “They’ll pull maps and pictures and things like that. It’s all stuff that’s available on the internet.”
With the large sums of money rental scammers are dealing with, Schwartz said even one potential renter taking the bait after publishing hundreds of ads can end up being worth the effort for the accomplishment of defrauding somebody.
Despite the fact that they are typically difficult to catch, scammers are not impossible to identify. Schwartz said the Vail Police Department has successfully solved a couple of scammer cases. Without the scammers living locally, however, he explained that the consequences are elusive.
“I was able to write an arrest warrant and had probable cause to write an arrest warrant for a girl who was doing this out of Texas,” Schwartz said. “Whether or not she’ll be arrested and brought back here to Colorado, that’s very unlikely and even if she is arrested, getting the money back is also very unlikely.”
Victims of scams can attempt to get reimbursed for the money they lost through the restitution process in the courts, however, Schwartz said total reimbursement is uncommon.
“I think something that some of these tenants need to keep in mind is that with fraud, the chance of getting the money back is very slim, even if we’re able to determine who the offender is,” Schwartz said.
Reporting a rental scam
If those searching for rental properties encounter listings with multiple red flags for scam potential, Schwartz said reporting the listing to law enforcement is often a good idea.
He also suggested people report the email addresses of scammers to the FBI-operated collection database for fraudulent activity.
“Their analysts collect and evaluate all this data and that’s how the FBI is able to try and track some of the stuff on a more international level,” Schwartz said.
The database can be accessed at www.ic3.gov. To reach the Vail Police Department, call 970-479-2201.