HELENA – Attorney General Steve Bullock and his Office of Consumer Protection are alerting renters and property owners to watch out for scam home-rental ads running on Craigslist in Montana.
“Craigslist this week pulled one of these scam ads,” Bullock said Friday, “but Montanans have enough to worry about without wondering if the house they want to rent is really part of an on-line fraud.”
Complaints have come to the state from various Montana locations, as well as from the Billings Police Department, which has also fielded several calls on the scam.
The scam works like this:
· A scammer copies a photo of a local house currently for sale.
· The scammer posts that photo on Craigslist in a fictitious “for rent” ad.
· Callers are told the house was for sale, but didn’t sell and now the owner is going to rent it.
· Callers are told the owner is out of town, but they can wire first and last month’s rent, along with a security deposit.
· All money wired away is lost; there is no house for rent.
· The scammer usually corresponds from a gmail address because gmail traces back to the Google headquarters in California, not to the account user’s IP address.
Det. Brett Lapham, of the Billings Police Department, has seen the fraud first-hand. He reminds people to never wire money to anyone they don’t know. Rather than relying on a Craigslist ad that is almost impossible to verify, the detective advises anyone looking for a rental to contact a local realtor or property management company.
Lapham also warns renters that filling out application forms that request Social Security numbers, banking information and other personal information for a scam rental could open them to identity theft. He urges people to read the warnings posted on the sites on which they are doing business. Craigslist has posted warnings of this scam.
At least one Montana home-owner has been victim of the fraud from the opposite end: an image of his home, which is currently on the market, has appeared against his will in a rent wire-scam. After the man contacted Craigslist, it took about a week for the site to pull the ad.
“The important message is that renters should be very careful about transferring money in response to on-line rental ads,” Bullock said. “Know who you are dealing with before you transfer money.”
Renters who have fallen for this scam and provided their personal identifying information should contact the Montana Office of Consumer Protection at 1-800-481-6896 or (406) 444-4500, www.consumerprotection.mt.gov, for information on the steps they can take to protect themselves, including putting a security freeze on their accounts.