“Oh, hi! We’re the people who rented your place.”
That’s what the owner of a Springs property, who asked not to be named, said she heard about 20 times, almost daily, over the past three weeks. She believes she has been the victim of a summer house rental scam.
Her property, a private one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment that is attached to her home, was listed on outeast.com and with Hamptons Realty Associates for rent from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The woman said it has been rented through July, but August is still available for $10,000.
Suddenly, people started showing up claiming to be the renters. They were all young people, including a few European tourists, she said. After making a few inquiries, she discovered that her rental listing from outeast.com had been copied and placed on Facebook Marketplace, an interface that is more commonly associated with buying and selling used household items and furniture. Recently, however, it expanded its services to include rental properties, usually affordable alternatives that don’t require fees and background checks. It also allows landlords and potential tenants to chat directly on the platform, making negotiations much easier. Facebook Marketplace attracted a reported one billion monthly global users in 2021, according to Statista, which specializes in market and consumer data.
“I didn’t originally know it was Facebook Marketplace until someone told me about where they had seen the listing. One of the earlier victims actually sent me the whole [online correspondence]. And it was pretty lengthy. It had a fake certificate of ownership of my house. These people are saying they own my house. And they have a lease agreement for the people to sign, and then they get the deposit through Zelle. I’ve had a lot of people show up who obviously don’t know that the rental price they’re asking is totally absurd,” she said. On Facebook Marketplace her property was listed for $1,500 a month and was purportedly available for a year-round rental, which she said is not the case.
“It’s really distressing to have strangers knocking on my door. I’ve been locking my doors. I’m so freaked out and I’m so worried that someone will get mad at me and want to beat me up or something,” she said over the phone. “Meanwhile, the police are like, ‘Oh, well, when they beat you up, we’ll do something.’ ”
An agent from Hamptons Realty got Facebook Marketplace to delete the listing, but almost immediately, a second one was placed on the site with new headshots, names, and contact information. The apartment owner, who has lived on the East End for about 40 years, said what is most upsetting is that the scammers are seemingly targeting those who can least afford to lose a $2,000 deposit. All but one person, she said, told her they had paid the deposit.
“I feel like there’s a desperation of people looking for a place to live out here so that they can work. And that’s what is being taken advantage of,” she said, and added that she is far from the only victim of a rental scam. Housing fraud has certainly become more common as desperate tenants fight over a chronic shortage of homes to rent, making them increasingly vulnerable to fraudsters.
“One realtor told me that she rented a house to some people, a summer rental for $80,000 and they were already in the house when another set of people showed up claiming to have rented the house as well. The impunity with which the scammers are operating is horrible,” she said.
On the Federal Trade Commission’s trade advice page, the following are a few of the tips listed to help potential renters avoid falling prey to scams:
Do an online search of the rental company. Enter its name plus words like “review,” “complaint,” or “scam.” If you find bad reviews, you may want to look elsewhere.
Got a good vibe? Rental home listings may appear in several places, including rental company websites and online listing services like Zillow, Trulia, or Craigslist. If you see a rental company’s listing on one of those online listing services, do a search of the home’s address to make sure it appears on the rental company’s website. If it doesn’t, it may be a scam.
Compare prices. Is the rent a lot less than comparable rentals? That could be a red flag.
Before you sign a lease, look for signs at the rental with the name of the property owner or manager. Call that company before making a deal with anyone.
Never pay with cash or wire transfers. If anyone tells you to pay this way, it could be a scam. Wiring money is like sending cash — once you send it, you have no way to get it back.
Rental scams can be reported to local law enforcement and the Federal Trade Commission at bit.ly/3tOgQGX.