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Catch Of The Week: Real Estate Scams

on May 26, 2019 - 7:12am
Los Alamos

Summer is a busy time for all of us, especially scammers. Students are looking for summer apartments, vacationers are looking for vacation rentals, and many people move into new homes over the summer months. Each of these scenarios can leave you vulnerable to various scams.

Here are some of the most common scams to watch out for:

Real Estate Wire Fraud

In this scenario, you are about to close on your dream home when you get an email from your title company or real estate agent. There is an issue, and if you don’t wire your closing costs or down payment immediately, you risk losing the house or having your closing date pushed out. The criminals behind this will use fear to get you to act without thinking. The email address is spoofed to look similar to your real estate agent’s or title company’s email address. If you look closely, you will find that the email address is off by a character or two. Frequently this happens because criminals have compromised real estate or title agent’s email addresses.

NEVER wire money to anyone based on an email. Always call your agent at the number you have on file, or better yet- go by their office and verify in person before wiring large amounts of cash. People have lost millions of dollars through this scam; don’t become the next victim.

Property Rental Scams

Every summer, Los Alamos, like many other towns, sees a huge increase in students. These students all need somewhere to live for the summer, but they need to be aware that they are potential targets. Rental scams are a common issue on sites like Craigslist, VRBO, Airbnb, Facebook, etc. These scam listings will steal details from real listings like pictures and descriptions, but list the rental at a significantly lower price. Again, scammers will use a sense of urgency to push you into making a decision; they will tell you they just got another offer, and you need to wire the money right now. If a rental listing seems too good to be true- be suspicious! It probably is too good to be true.  

Other red flags are typos or grammatical errors, requests for payment via gift card, requests for sensitive information, anger, and unwillingness to allow you to view the property in person. Always protect yourself by researching the owner and home before you wire any money!  Search for the details in the listing, are there identical listings for the same rental property in other cities? Scammers will duplicate the same listing in multiple cities to try to reel in as many people as possible.

The same advice applies to vacation rentals. Always be suspicious, especially with a vacation rental where you usually cannot see the property in person.  Insist on speaking with the rental owner over the phone; do not just communicate by email. If they make odd excuses for why they cannot talk to you by phone, or if they call you at odd times (they are probably overseas) these should raise serious red flags.

Travel Company Scams

One of the simplest scams is the classic “You won a fabulous vacation” robocall scam. If you get a robocall, or live call, like this hang-up and block the caller. Also, watch out for offers by email or phone for “vacation packages” that sound too good to be true.

Recently Airbnb users have been noticing strange bookings and charges on their accounts that they didn’t make. Criminals have been making reservations at fake rental properties across the globe through victim’s Airbnb accounts. According to Airbnb, these breaches are not related to their servers and were due to user account compromise. Frequently this is done through a phishing email which takes the user to a fake login page and steals their credentials.

To keep your Airbnb (or other accounts) safe online always be aware of where you are going online! If you get an email that seems suspicious, don’t click it; instead, navigate on your own to the website and login to check your account details. If you see anything unusual, be sure to reach out to Airbnb to let them know.  

Another possible issue to watch out for with vacation rentals is hidden cameras. Some people like to hide cameras so they can spy on you, or even broadcast the images over the internet. 

It can be difficult to find these, but there are some things you can do:

  • Physically check the room. Examine places where someone might hide a camera or microphone like lamps, light fixtures, vases, smoke detectors, alarm clocks, etc. Check under or behind furniture as well.
  • Listen- do you hear any odd low clicks or buzzes? Most motion-sensitive cameras emit some noise when they’re on.
  • Turn off the lights and check for small green or red LEDs; night vision cameras frequently use these colors.  
  • Use your smartphone’s flashlight to scan the room and check for reflections. These could be hidden camera lenses.
  • Download an app for your phone like Fing or WiFi Analyzer and connect to your rental’s Wi-Fi network to check for other devices that are connected.
  • If you want to get high tech, you can install Nmap on your laptop and scan the area for connected devices. This can be complicated, but instructions can be found online.
  • If you have a concern about your Airbnb or feel uncomfortable contact the Airbnb Trust & Safety team and they will help you resolve the issue.

These are just a few of the active real estate and rental scams; there are many more out there. Have a fun summer, but be careful out there and watch out for scams!  

More information can be found at these websites:

Editor’s note: Becky Rutherford works in information technology at Los Alamos National Laboratory.