HANNIBAL — A real estate company is warning the community to be aware of a rise in online rental scams and to always know who you are working with.

Sheri Neisen, broker of Prestige Realty, and Sarah Hathaway, office manager at Prestige Realty, have both received reports of scams from local residents, which usually come in the form of a personal message that sends pictures of homes pirated from real estate agencies.

While they can’t necessarily track the scams or prevent them from happening, Neisen and Hathaway hope to get information out to the public so they can avoid and report scams if approached.

People searching for rentals often post on their personal profile or to various Facebook groups in search of specific criteria, such as a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house. The scammer then responds in a personal message with pictures of a local home that has everything they are looking for.

They can’t pinpoint exactly where their pictures have been pirated from but it could be from real estate sites like Zillow or Realtor.com where properties are not immediately taken down by the sites after real estate agencies update them as sold.

The scammer often urges that a deposit be sent in order to hold the property.

Payment is not usually requested through secured or trackable methods, like Paypal or Venmo, but by various types of gift cards. One person Neisen spoke with was alarmed and stopped talking to a potential landlord when asked to pay with a Walmart gold card by sending pictures of both sides of the card.

Scammers also sometimes provide a fake phone number that can appear to be local through a phone app that will send out a different number than where the text or call is actually being sent.

The Facebook profiles of scammers are also not legitimate names.

Neisen reported odd spellings with irregular spacing and capitalization; she ran across one using the name “Vinny” presented as “Vi N n y.’

The scammer will also sometimes give the person they are messaging permission to walk around the property they are touting, which may or may not be vacant.

“That’s the scary part to me because some of these properties could be occupied,” Neisen said.

Hathaway said with a current shortage of rentals in the area, scammers are using desperate situations to their advantage.

“When someone with a family is only weeks away from getting kicked out of their home, they are much more likely to message a scammer back,” she said.

The price for the rental scam is usually low for the area, often including all utilities and other perks like a pet-friendly landlord, in order to add pressure to send a deposit before someone else snatches the deal.

Neisen said it’s unfortunate because many send out as much as $500 in a scam and are unable to come up with that sum of money again for a legitimate rental.

“Now they are stuck and still need to find a place to live,” she said.

Neisen and Hathaway urge anyone who is dealing with a potential landlord online to make sure they have a local connection to talk to and verify their identity.

Neisen said there aren’t many out-of-town investors that rent property in the area, but those who do usually have a local contact like a property manager.

“We have some investment properties listed from an owner in Colorado but (Prestige) would be that local point of contact,” she said. “If you Google the property then you will see that we have it listed.”

When looking at the pictures sent of the property, they said it’s also a good idea to look up that address on Zillow or Realty.com and see if they are currently or previously listed, then call the real estate agent the property is listed through.

“Always Google and verify,” said Hathaway.

There are also sites other than Facebook used for rental scams.

Neisen once discovered a rental listing on Craig’s List of a property sold the previous year through Prestige. She contacted the property owner who she did not believe was attempting to rent the property, and he had to get the post taken down from the site.

Another scam that Prestige has not dealt with but they continually watch for and warn clients about is wire transfer fraud. This takes place during closing when a scammer intercepts on the closing and sends a fake email from the title company with wiring instructions.

Neisen said a real estate agent in California reported that a buyer lost nearly $1 million in a wire transfer requested from a fake email address. She also said several years ago a Hannibal agent from a different agency received an email with a wire transfer request but it was intercepted before any money was sent.

Missouri now has a wire fraud pamphlet they give out to all of their clients.

“We always tell our people, don’t ever follow wiring instructions unless you hear from your Realtor directly,” Neisen said. “We call them and say we are going to send you wire instructions or we are going to have the title company send instructions and it’s going to be this person at this email address.”

Neisen and Hathaway urge anyone to call Prestige Realty if they need help verifying that a rental property is legitimate and to stay alert when they are contacted by a potential landlord.

“If something seems too good to be true, it probably is,” said Hathaway.

By TerBaru