Victim reports to the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) Scam Tracker show that crooks have found a way to associate an address with their shady dealings, leading to the birth of even more scams.
Homeowners with multiple properties, as well as 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.
Scammers, say the BBB, 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 harvested from legitimate websites to convince consumers the products exist.
Especially since mid-March of this year, hundreds of fraudulent websites have been created to trick consumers who have increased their online shopping and activities during the pandemic.
To give their scheme a more reputable appearance, scammers are adding a physical address to their websites or online product listings.
They get the address by finding a vacant property and simply adding it to their listing.
However, a quick web search may reveal that the 'business address' is located in a residential area, is a vacant place of business, or is the same address as a real, but unrelated business.
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.
To an unsuspecting consumer, they actually look legitimate, however they 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 will not be able to meet you in person or show you the property.
Many victim reports to BBB Scam Tracker share that the scammers use social distancing requirements and other COVID-19 related excuses to convince you to settle with simply driving by and looking through the window, or a virtual tour.
They then send contracts by mail and email and ask for your deposit and first month’s rent.
In return, they will mail you the keys to the property. The fraudsters will receive your payment, but no keys will be sent to you in return. In the end, the scammers disappear with your money and personal information.
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 are 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 neighbour. 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 is much safer than a lockbox.
• Keep your alarm system up and running. This will be a huge protection for your unoccupied home. If you cannot afford the expense of an alarm system, it does not hurt to keep an alarm system sign posted in the front yard. You could also consider installing a surveillance doorbell that can show you who has been on the premises, in real time.
• Put a hold on the mail. A mailbox overflowing with junk mail is a tell-tale sign no one is home and could attract scammers, thieves, and other suspicious individuals. Arrange to have your mail forwarded to your new address or a P.O. box.
• Notice the warning signs. If you start receiving messages or mail directed to your vacant property with someone else’s name, or complaints regarding rental agreements or sales you did not make, it’s time to investigate the matter further.
Tips for renters:
• Confirm the identity of the landlord. A legitimate landlord will not hesitate to show you their ID. You should be able to confirm they are the real property owner by checking the BC Registries and Online Services.
• Know local rental prices. If someone offers you a great rental for an extremely low price, proceed with caution.
• See the property first. Never sign a lease or make a deposit without seeing the property in person.
• Never wire money to a stranger. Do not give in to a sob story. If you wire money to a stranger and they do not keep up their end of the deal, you will have no way to get your money back.
• Watch out for red flags. If a property has a 'for sale' sign, but the 'landlord' wants to rent, something is up. It is also suspicious if you arrive to a property and find a broken lockbox.
• Use the services of a reputable rental agency. This will give you an added layer of protection as you carry out your search.
Tips for consumers:
• Look out for too-good-to-be-true deals. Know the normal price range of the item you want to purchase and be wary if you see the same product available at a steeply discounted price.
• Double check the 'business address'. If you are shopping on an unfamiliar website, take a few moments to research their address. If the address pops up on a map as a residential address, leads you to a vacant property, or is being connected to another business, you may be dealing with a fraudulent company.
• Make purchases through a reputable online retailer. Double check business ratings at BBB.org and read through customer reviews before you decide to do business with an online retailer.