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Don’t fall victim to rental scams, Provo police warn

Aug 7, 2023, 9:47 AM

Image by mastersenaiper from Pixabay...

Image by mastersenaiper from Pixabay

PROVO, Utah — In May, a woman found a house to rent on social media and sent a message to the email address listed.

After messaging back and forth, the woman agreed to rent the Provo home and transferred $2,000. But not long after, the woman was contacted by the home’s actual owner.

“The victim stated after the money was sent, she was contacted by the real owner of the property … and that was when she learned the Facebook listing was fake,” according to a search warrant affidavit written by Provo police.

That case remains under investigation. But that woman’s situation is not unique. In an earlier search warrant, a Provo police officer noted: “These types of scams are very common lately in the city of Provo.”

In a 2022 case, the victim also responded to an ad for an apartment for rent.

“The suspect and victim discussed the apartment and the victim was never allowed to see it prior to renting it,” the affidavit states. “The suspect talked the victim into paying a security deposit plus first and last month’s rent. The victim paid a total of $3,000 to the suspect via Zelle. … Once the victim had paid, they found that the suspect had nothing to do with the address and the entire thing was a scam to obtain money. The victim was left with no goods or services after the payment and the suspect cut off all conversation.”

In yet another case in May, the victim paid $2,200 after signing what they believed was a contract for a rental house that the victim found on a social media ad. The victim “then talked to the actual residents of the building who told them the actual owners’ names and they found that they had been scammed,” police said.

In February, another woman also attempted to rent an apartment in Provo and contacted someone who she thought was the property manager. She sent that person $1,110. The fake manager then asked for more money before he would give her the key, according to a search warrant affidavit. The woman refused and later discovered that the man was neither the owner nor manager of the apartment.

The problem of apartment rental scams is not unique to Provo. In May, a victim found an apartment in Saratoga Springs for rent on Facebook and arranged with “Dave” to make a $1,000 deposit via Venmo.

The victim became suspicious about the photo for the Venmo account and believed “Dave” seemed to communicate in broken English via text. “The next day, ‘Dave’ asked the victim for first month’s rent along with additional money. At this point the victim asked for a refund, believing it was a scam. ‘Dave’ refused to refund any money and ceased communication. The victim later discovered the apartment was not actually for rent,” another search warrant says.

Detectives have investigated 12 fraud or attempted fraud cases involving rental scams in Provo alone since November.

In July 2022, the FBI issued a warning about an increase in rental scams, noting that the year before, more than 11,500 people nationwide reported losing more than $350 million due to these types of scams “which is a 64% increase from the previous year.”

The FBI specifically warned of online scams.

“The scammer duplicates postings from legitimate real estate websites and reposts these ads, after altering them. Often, the scammers use the broker’s real name to create a fake email, which gives the fraud more legitimacy. When the victim sends an email through the classified advertisement website inquiring about the home, they receive a response from someone claiming to be the owner. The ‘owner’ claims they’re unable to show the property without payment because they are either out of town or out of the country. If the victim is interested in renting the home, they are asked to send money, and shortly thereafter the property is no longer available,” the FBI said.

How to avoid being scammed

Provo police say many of those who have been scammed are college-aged. And with the start of fall semester for Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University right around the corner, police have some reminders for potential renters.

For starters, police say potential tenants should actually knock on the door of the place they wish to rent and talk to the people who are there.

“Many times, the home or apartment is already rented out and being lived in and the occupants can verify if the home/apartment is up for rent,” Provo Police Sgt. Nick Patterson said.

He also warns of scammers who request money via Venmo or other online transactions. When the money is sent privately as opposed to it being marked as a “business transaction,” companies like Venmo assume the sender knows who the money is being sent to, and will not issue a refund, Patterson said.

Other tips from Patterson:

  • “If the person claims they will mail the key to them after the payments goes through, it is 100% a scam. I have not worked on a single case where this was not fraudulent.”
  • “Anytime someone requests money be sent via gift card, it is a scam. The money from gift cards is immediately removed and transferred to other accounts and usually out of the country where we have no jurisdiction to continue our investigation. The money is lost forever.”
  • “Before renting any home, I would check Google or land records and verify the address and owner information. If the property is for rent, Google the company and call them from the number from a good search. Don’t rely on the number listed in the listing, go directly to the rental company website.”

A recent study ranked Salt Lake City as having one of the most competitive rental markets in the West.

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Don’t fall victim to rental scams, Provo police warn