Houston-area realtors warn of home rental scam that disguises fake listings for real homes

Here's how Houston-area realtors say you can avoid falling victim to a new rental scam that could be tricky to spot.
HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Realtors have a major warning for anyone looking to rent a home in the Houston area.

Scammers are hijacking legitimate web listings for homes and using the information to steal money from unsuspecting families.

Right now, it's hard to find a single family home to lease without paying a lot of money per month, and realtors say criminals are taking advantage of those looking for a place to live at a good price.

Casey Batiste and Anthony Colar recently saw an ad for a home for rent online, and contacted the person advertising the house.

When it came time to take a tour, the couple did not meet face-to-face with the person leasing the home. Instead, everything took place over the phone.

The couple even got a code from an app to access the key to the house. They did a virtual walk-through with the leasing agent via video call, who told them they had to act right away.

He told Colar a security deposit and first month's rent needed to be deposited into an account immediately.

"I had not even left out of the foyer to go look at the rest of the house before he started about making deposits and all that stuff," said Colar.

Batiste and Colar thought that was strange, but given how hard it is to get a lease, they deposited the money. After that, all contact with the leasing agent stopped. The couple then realized their $2,500 were gone.

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"They took it. They just took it," said Colar.

Realtors say this scam is happening more frequently, and it can be hard to spot.

"Unfortunately, it is turning into a big problem," said Houston Association of Realtors (HAR) Chair-elect Jennifer Wauhob.

Officials with HAR say scammers are copying legitimate listings of homes for sale or lease, and then using the information to create fake listings.

Renters who respond to the ads end up calling the scammer, not the actual agent representing the home.

Wauhob says the scammers tell renters they have to act right away, and usually offer the homes for rent well below market value.

So, how do you avoid the scam?

"One of the first things I would recommend is Googling the address. If you see that home listed on other websites and the information is not adding up, that should be a red flag," said Wauhob. "It's also good to stick to trusted sources, so here in Houston, we are very fortunate we have HAR.com. You know the information on there is legitimate."

Realtors say the tight rental market is ripe for this type of scam. They recommend always meeting face-to-face with a listing agent, and never feel rushed to send money or make a deposit to secure a lease.

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