KITTERY, Maine — Portsmouth, N.H., Realtor and property manager Marcel Bartley said the advertisement on an aggregate real estate Web site was truly convincing: A couple wanted to rent “to someone who will love our home” in Kittery Foreside, where their children were raised, while they were away on a mission trip. They weren’t looking for just anyone; the renter had to be responsible.
The problem is, it’s a scam.
Bartley was actually renting that house for $1,650 a month, but “somehow these guys got a hold of my listing, jumbled up the verbiage” and put “their house” online for rent for $900 a month — security deposit and first month’s rent up front.
Unfortunately, said Kittery Police detective Ray Hazen, this scenario is not uncommon.
He said scammers troll bona fide national real estate Web sites such as Zillow and Trulia for rental properties, download the photos to their computers, make up some verbiage, set up an e-mail account, buy a prepaid phone and their illegal business is up and running.
“So the unscrupulous person uses a classified ad site like craigslist, and advertises the property for rent — with a photo,” he said.
In just the past several days, he’s been notified of three such rental scams.
“One allegedly involved a family who lives out of state and owns a property locally they were actively looking to rent,” he said. “Fortunately, the prospective renters became suspicious of the exchanges and determined it was a scam artist.”
Hazen said that in this day and age, it’s not difficult to set up a fake identity.
“Last year, we had people show up expecting to move in, only to find people living in the house,” he said.
Bartley, of RE/MAX By the Bay, said that in any given year, three or four of his rental listings will re-appear as for rent by some scammer. He said he’s particularly concerned at this time of year, as the Seacoast readies for a deluge of foreign workers here on a work visa.
“In another week, my phone is going to be ringing off the hook with students asking if I have any housing,” he said. This kind of person, unfamiliar with the area, is just exactly who the scammer is hoping to snag, he said.
Bartley said while these kind of scams seem to increase during the summer, they happen all year long. He has started a Web site, www.seacoastarea.com, that just lists Seacoast area property for rent or sale by area brokers.
Hazen said that if someone is taken in by the scam and actually sends money, the chances of police recovering it are slim.
“That deposit, while a significant loss to the renter, may not represent a significant enough crime to warrant going after someone who is posting the property from Florida or California, or out of the country,” and the scammers know that, he said. “Victims are also spread out in a wide geographical area.”
Hazen said the message to all is to “deal locally.”
“Deal with a bona fide agent, or if you’re dealing with a private party, make sure you have a local phone number and verify ownership by calling Town Hall,” he said.