Scammers trying to rent out homes they don't own

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by JOE FRYER / KING 5 News

KING5.com

Posted on January 27, 2011 at 5:56 PM

Updated Thursday, Jan 27 at 7:28 PM

SEATTLE -- A real estate scam is picking up steam in Western Washington.  The scam artists are duping people into paying rent or putting down a deposit on places that are not even for rent.  In fact, the places are usually for sale -- by someone else.

Lisa Dean said she almost fell for the scam.  She was looking to rent a home in Seattle and thought she found the perfect home on a rental web site for just $2,000 a month.  But there was a red flag.

"He expected us to rent it sight unseen," Dean said.

Dean insisted on seeing it.  So the alleged homeowner, who claimed to be living in New York, said an attorney in Iowa would need to fly to Seattle to show the home, and that would require a $250 deposit in advance.

Dean wired the money, but stopped payment before it cleared because she grew suspicious.  The home had a "For Sale" sign out front, prompting Dean to call the real estate agent listed on the sign, Beth Toomey.

"She called me and said, 'I'm confused, can a house be for sale and for rent at the same time?'" Toomey said.  "And I said, 'Sometimes, but not usually.'"

Toomey then informed Dean it was a scam, one that seems to be happening more often.

"These professional scammers are telling stories that are full of bologna," Toomey said.

Catching the suspects is tough.  The state attorney general's office said it does not investigate these cases, and most local police agencies do not investigate either because they are Internet crimes that occur outside of their jurisdictions.

Victims can file reports with the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and National White Collar Crime Center.  Special Agent Fred Gutt with the Seattle FBI office warns every complaint will not get an individual response, but the complaints give the agency a chance to track trends.

"It's been so frustrating," said Dean, who did file a complaint.  "I would absolutely like to see justice."

For now, consumer awareness is usually the best line of defense.

"We want to share this story and tell people: be careful, do your homework," Toomey said.  Before renting a home, "They must insist on getting inside."

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