A Dangerous World

How Scammers Steal Addresses of Empty Homes For Rental Cons

An unsuspecting renter actually signed a phony lease… and paid a $1600 deposit

The Better Business Bureau continues its efforts to reveal the many new cyber-scams being employed, especially during the COVID crisis. Visit www.bbb.org for details.

For years, BBB has warned consumers against doing business with callers and online companies who don’t have a valid physical address. Scammers, never easily deterred, have found a way to associate an address with their shady dealings, and this has led to the birth of even more scams.

Homeowners with multiple properties, consumers, and renters need to be aware of several scams that start with the address of a house, apartment, or property that is currently unoccupied.

Phony Rental Scams

Scam reports indicate that many con artists steal online rental listings – including the photos of the house or apartment and the property description – and create their own listings, which look legitimate but contain the scammer’s contact information instead of the property owner’s or rental agent’s. They may work out a deal with you over the phone, insisting that because of an emergency or circumstances outside of their control, they won’t be able to meet you in person or show you the property. Instead, they may invite you to drive by and send you a contract by mail or email.

Once you’ve signed the contract, they ask for your deposit and first month’s rent. In return, they will mail you the keys to the property. Your check or wired funds will be received, but no key will ever be sent in return, and the scammers will vanish into thin air.

According to BBB Scam Tracker, one victim in Vermont was sent a signed lease agreement and transferred 1,600 as a deposit, after which “the phone number was deactivated and our money was gone.” Another victim in Massachusetts explained how her and her fiance lost $3,800 to a scammer who advertised a rental housing listing on Zillow. “He sent us back a signed lease and a ‘welcome letter’ and even a fake contract with the landlord,’ The victim explained. “The documents seemed real and the story seemed real, and he used a Zillow listing that was probably a previous real listing.”

The documents seemed real and the story seemed real, and he used a Zillow listing that was probably a previous real listing...

Scammers are also using vacant addresses for even more sinister purposes. Some scammers look for vacant homes that don’t seem well-cared for – a “For Sale” sign, lack of an alarm system, and an unkempt lawn may be all it takes. After identifying a target, they actually break into the home, set up their own rental listing and give tours to potential renters. In a few cases, renters have lived in a home and paid a false landlord for months before the truth comes to light.

Businesses Using Fake Addresses

Scammers will try to sell all kinds of counterfeit or non-existent products online. Common scams involve the sale of high-dollar large items, such as RVs and cars, puppies, and brand name clothing, usually at steeply discounted (too-good-to-be-true) prices. They often use images they’ve harvested from legitimate websites to convince consumers the products exist.

To give their scheme a more reputable appearance, scammers are now adding a physical address to their websites or online product listings. Where do they get the address? They find a vacant property and simply add it to their listing. A quick web search may reveal that the “business address” is located in a residential area, a vacant place of business, or the same address as a real, but unrelated business.

How to Avoid Vacant House Scams

Tips for owners of unoccupied houses:

  • Secure all windows and doors to your vacant property. It may seem obvious, but door and window locks can get overlooked – especially if you’re busy with the hustle and bustle of a move. Keep intruders out by double checking the locks before you leave the property.
  • Maintain your property. A lawn and house that looks cared for will discourage scammers from targeting your property. If you live far away, hire a reputable lawn care company to come at regular intervals, set up automatic sprinklers, and keep the contact information for a trustworthy local handyman nearby.
  • Give an extra key to a friend or neighbor. Ask them to check up on your home periodically. This is also important in case someone needs to give a handyman or the police access to your property and much safer than a lockbox.


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