Landlord Sonja Kluesener first suspected something fishy when three potential renters contacted her about the Zebulon home she’d just listed on Zillow, and there was a significant price difference.
In her ad, she’d listed the three-bedroom ranch-style cottage at $1,700 per month. But they reported finding a similar ad on another listings site – for $200 less.
Then it clicked. “People were impersonating me,” she told the News & Observer.
Scammers had lifted her ad from the popular real estate site and, within days, created a fake listing using Kluesener’s name, photos and even open-house times. They also added a few sweeteners, like the below-market price and allowance for “cats and large dogs,” and then posted it to other sites like Redfin and ForRent.com.
The contact number and email listed, however, weren’t hers.
“Each of these people believed they’d been emailing with me and were about to wire $4,500 for rent and security to whoever put up the false listing. (They) even sent people to my open house to make it seem legit,” Kluesener said.
The scam unraveled when people became suspicious and contacted her through Zillow. But she worries others won’t be as lucky. “Other than informing the public, I have no idea how to stop it,” she said.
A Zillow spokesperson said its teams actively monitor the site for possible fraud or scams, preventing them from getting posted.
“If a listing is found to be fraudulent, it is removed from our site as quickly as possible,” the company emailed in a statement.
Real estate scams are nothing new. But as rents, home prices, and inflation remain high in today’s volatile housing market, some industry experts warn scams could be on the rise.
Nationwide, in 2021, 11,578 people reported losing roughly $350 million due to these types of scams – a 64% jump from the previous year, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
The office of North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said it is aware of such scams, but it doesn’t track numbers and hasn’t received any reports of incidents. “Because this is a criminal violation, we’d encourage people to report this directly to local law enforcement,” said Nazneen Ahmed, the attorney general’s press secretary.
Lynn Foster is a real estate agent working out of Apex. She said she’s seen these kinds of scams for years now, and they target homes for sale, not just rentals.
“I’d say these scams are more common than we’d like to believe,” she said. “As (scammers) become savvier with internet hacking, and buyers and renters become more desperate due to housing shortages, we see this type of activity increasing.”
Dustin Engelken, government affairs director at Triangle Apartment Association, urged “healthy skepticism” when entering the apartment search.
“If you see something that looks significantly below market rent and seems too good to be true, it probably is,” he said.
Other red flags include a request to wire funds or to do business via text messages.
“A lot of times, it’s ‘Send me a deposit via Venmo or a cash app,’ then you never hear from them again,” Engelken said. “You certainly don’t want to make payments to somebody that you haven’t met, or which isn’t going directly to the legitimate company. You want to do some extra research.”