Victim: Rental scams abound in soft market

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY: With the real estate market soft, there are an ever-increasing number of scams involving properties for rent.

And while it’s common to use the Internet as a marketing tool to find renters – or to find a place to rent – with that larger audience come the unscrupulous with a variety of rip-off scams. Jamie Kirkendall, a Vero Beach businesswoman with a condominium she was trying to rent out in Gainesville, nearly got duped by a scam artist somewhere overseas even though she knew there was something fishy about the entire transaction.

Fortunately for Kirkendall, a co-owner of Waves Auto Spa, hers was a happy ending as no money changed hands and she now is selling the condo to an authentic buyer.

However, her story of trying to rent the apartment is a cautionary tale for anyone using the Internet to rent or sell their property.

In the case of Kirkendall, she played a part in what is known as the fake check scheme in which the con artist, through a variety of ruses, tries to get the victim to cash bogus checks and wire him the money out of the victim’s personal bank account.

The wrinkle in Kirkendall’s case was that he wasn’t asking for all the money. He wanted to apply some to the deposit for the apartment and some he wanted wired to a supposed travel agent in London so he could purchase his plane ticket to the United States.

According to experts, one of the warning signs of being scammed is the transaction will involve more money than the agreed upon price, with the excess to be wired elsewhere, not necessarily to the person with whom you are dealing.

“The deposit was $2,700 and he sent me $2,850 (in form of three bogus $950 postal money orders),” Kirkendall said. “He said he needed $1,400 to go toward his plane ticket and that he would sort the rest of the deposit out when he got here.”

Kirkendall first met Jackson Weil, who presented himself as a 27-year-old rich kid living in London but wanting to come to Gainesville to begin an undefined business venture, in an e-mail sent on June 21.

“From the beginning I was wondering if it was somebody goofing around with me,” she said. “He was so bizarre and the story was so convoluted, but he made it sound like he was some bored rich kid from England. I was anxious to get the place rented and he was the only nibble I had at the time. I didn’t want to let him go in case he really did want to rent the place.”

While she had her suspicions and her “gut” was telling her to be careful, over the next month Kirkendall began trading e-mails and they formed a connection with one another.

The transaction progressed to the point where he mailed three bogus postal money orders to Kirkendall in Vero Beach, with the request that she send some of it back to him to purchase the plane ticket.

In the meantime, an actual buyer approached Kirkendall to purchase the place, and when she told the supposed renter, he asked her to cash out the postal checks he had mailed and send him the money back.

Weil was so slick, he even told her he had done some research and she could cash the money orders at the Publix on 21st Street in Vero.

Wanting to do the right thing, Kirkendall tried to cash the money orders at Publix, but was told they don’t cash postal money orders.

She then went to the Post Office, whereupon the checks were immediately identified as forgeries.

“When you put his money order side by side with a real one, the watermark and numbering were clearly different,” Kirkendall said.

Kirkendall said despite being embarrassed by nearly being duped, she wanted to tell her story to alert others to be careful.

She admits the whole time thinking something was not right, but went along because at first she didn’t want to lose a potential renter and then because she wanted to do the right thing and give him his money back.

“When you get taken in you feel so stupid and I think a lot of times people don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “My gut reaction was correct, if he had not been the only nibble, I wouldn’t have given him the time of day. But I figured since he was the only one, I might as well go along and see what happened.”

Kirkendall turned over all her email exchanges and the bogus money orders to postal investigators, but they say since no money changed hands nothing is likely to come of it since the con artist lives in a foreign country.

“As far as postal money orders go, no one (hardly ever) ever succeeds at negotiating a counterfeit inside a post office, that’s why the bad guys try to get the victim to deposit it into their bank account,” said Postal Inspector Bladismir Rojo via e-mail.

He did add, however, if Kirkendall had been able to cash the checks she would have been liable for paying them back.

Lora Amelio, a rental specialist with Norris and Company, said there are guidelines you can follow to protect yourself from these kinds of scams.

“There are three basic steps you can take to check on a potential renter and if you follow them you can be reasonably comfortable about giving someone the keys to your place and allow them to move in,” she said.

The first is to check employment and make sure a candidate has a stable history, including checking with past employers.

Amelio said her rule of thumb is that the renter’s income needs to be 3 1/2 to four times the monthly rent to consider them a good candidate.

The next safeguard, and this is where using a real estate agent may come in handy, is to do a thorough credit check.

“I consider their overall credit score and see if they have a history of making late payments,” she said. “It will also disclose foreclosures or bankruptcies, which are happening these days, and if that comes up I will ask for an additional security deposit.”

The third safeguard is to check rental references. Amelio said she goes back five years and will call previous landlords and ask if the tenant paid rent on time, left the property in good condition and if they give proper notice when leaving.

“These are all safeguards and you go over what you have found out with the owner, but ultimately it is up to them,” she said. “We have to be careful because we cannot discriminate, but with these guidelines the owner can make an informed decision.”

Amelio noted in the case of Kirkendall it would be difficult to check on someone overseas, but she added if someone doesn’t have a Social Security number or some way of verifying their information, it should be a big red flag.

“This scam is the perfect reason why owners in this day and age should be careful with their most valuable asset and should not do this on their own,” Amelio said. “A Realtor will protect and safeguard their property by making sure an applicant has been verified and is qualified to live in their home.”

Many experts are predicting rentals will remain an attractive bargain as a glut of investor-owned properties remains available with owners holding on in hopes their underwater homes will eventually turn right-side up.

And as Kirkendall’s case points out, listening to your gut may not be enough to avoid getting caught up in a scam.

“The times have changed, before you would put an ad in your local paper and you could rent it out on your own,” Amelio said. “But now you never know who you might be talking to, when you advertise on the Internet. Anyone in the world has access to you and you become open to a lot of unqualified people responding to the ads they find.”

While the Internet is open season for scammers, there are some Web sites that can help you to protect yourself as well.

The United States Postal Inspection Service Web site (postalinspectors.uspis.gov) lists a number consumer safety tips and suggests ways to protect yourself from frauds involving the mail service.

A sister site to this is www.fakechecks.org, which lists a number of scams such as “The Foreign Business Offer” or “Rental Schemes” and also provides tips to protect yourself along with a test to help determine if you are being taken in by one of these scams.

Most reputable Web sites will also clearly have links warning you about scam artists trying to take advantage of their site.

Even Rentals.com, which Kirkendall used to list her property, has such a link that includes a warning about scams, including this one: For whatever reason given, the potential renter wants to send you a check for a large sum of money in excess of the rent due.

Solution: Let the potential renter know that you will only accept a check for the exact amount of the rent due and that their check must clear before they may rent your property.

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