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Police, Realtors warn of rental scam

A scam on Craigslist has targeted renters seeking a home in the Rogue Valley, where a tight housing market has driven up prices and driven down availability.

According to real estate agents Patty Davis and Tara Jacobi of Keller Williams Realty in Medford, who listed a three-bedroom, two-bath home at 1443 Ridgepine Way in southwest Medford for $179,000, a scammer copied the photos and description of the house to create a bogus ad for a rental property well below market rates.

The scam listing, which has since been pulled from Craigslist, said the property was for rent for $800 a month, including utilities. The scammers asked would-be renters to send a deposit in exchange for keys. 

Some of the would-be renters called Keller Williams after they saw the property was listed for sale through the agency. Davis said she has received about 25 calls from rental applicants. It was difficult to persuade some applicants that the deal was a hoax.

"The people are so excited," Davis said. "They see it and say, 'Oh, my gosh, I want to rent this house.' "

The Realtors forwarded email correspondence from applicants who reached out to the scammer before contacting them. In somewhat broken English, the scammer explains that they'll send keys to the first applicant who wires them a deposit.

"I need to be honest with you at this Point. I have other ppl who are also interested in the property and willing to make payment as well. Any one who makes payment will be the one I will secure the house too," the scammer wrote one potential victim.

"The last time I leased my house and sent the Keys first, the tenant never send my payment until I called the police to get him out. Once bitten twice shy," the scammer told another potential victim.

Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau said properties posted for lower than market rates should raise a red flag for rental seekers.

"They're offering a very nice rental for a very nice price that almost seems too good to be true," Budreau said.

This is not the only local property offered as a bogus rental. Budreau said Friday that there had been three reports of scam rentals in the previous 24 hours. The fake rental posts claim to come from a property owner who has had to relocate to Texas and is offering reduced rent because the owner wants someone to take care of the house.

Other scam listings recently pulled from Craigslist include a three-bedroom, two-bath house built in 2006 in Central Point for $970 a month, and a three-bedroom, two-bath house in Talent for $750. Like the fraudulent post in Medford, the other scam posts include utilities and allow pets to entice more victims.

Budreau said another red flag should be raised when a purported property owner wants to communicate only by text and email.

Davis and Jacobi said the scammer searches property records and sites such as Zillow.com to find the owner's name and then poses as that person. The scammer even creates a fake email address using the owner's name, they said.

"Whoever's doing this is very aggressive," Davis said.

Budreau said using public records to pose as a property owner isn't new, nor is the scam itself. He said 10 reports of the scam have been reported in the past six months. 

Budreau said no one has reported that they've fallen victim to the scam, but he said some have come close. The scammer will typically ask the rental applicant to wire funds with the promise that the owner will send a key via FedEx.

"The biggest red flag is when it comes to payment," Budreau said. "That's usually when the victims stop and reassess."

Police advise would-be renters to always walk through a potential rental property and confirm ownership before handing over money.

In some areas, scammers have broken into a property for a "tour," but that hasn't been reported in Southern Oregon. Budreau said the department believes the latest scammer is from out of the area.

"It's not new. It's something we've seen before," Budreau said. "It seems to be more prolific than we've seen before."

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@mailtribune.com.

A For Sale sign at this house at 1443 Ridgepine Way in southwest Medford warns would-be renters that a Craigslist rental listing is a scam. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch