State consumer watchdog warning to renters — know who your real landlord is

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Housing costs are surging fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and now consumer watchdogs say, that is leading to a spike in rental scams. The state division of consumer protection issued an alert, and they say crooks are devising new ways of stealing your money.

The Federal Trade Commission says rental scams have cost New Yorkers nearly $2 million over the last three years and real estate experts say there are a few simple ways you can avoid getting ripped off.

One family had already started to move when they learned they had been ripped off by a rent scammer. They found the house on Craigslist and after talking with the fake landlord on the phone and through email, they paid a deposit and the first month’s rent.

Then the real landlord showed up.

“The owner comes and says we are trespassing,” the ripped-off renter said.

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These kinds of rental scams can be especially painful for folks on shoestring budgets and the president of the Local Realtors Association told us, the money is paid upfront, online or through other means that are hard to trace.

“And they will arrange for a time to meet at the property and then never talk to the person again. By that time it is already too late because the money is already gone, the deposit has already been taken from the client,” said Amber Wesser, Association of Realtors.

Buffalo Niagara Association of Realtors president Amber Wesser told us, a meeting is set up to turn over the keys, but when the scammer does not show, the victims often turn to the realtors association for help.

“And say well, I am renting that property and I can’t get ahold of the seller or the owner, can you help me? We are like, you are not renting the property, unfortunately, and it is heartbreaking,” Wesser said.

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Wesser also told us about another scheme involving new homebuyers who receive a letter like this that seems to be a bill for a document search, but a closer look shows a disclaimer that it is only an offer.

“Unfortunately our industry has been hit extremely hard over the past decade with all of these fraud scam type situations and we have to stay up to date on them,” added Wesser.

That document search scheme might seem unscrupulous but the disclaimer keeps law enforcement at bay. You can find a link to the state’s consumer alert, here.

Al Vaughters is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 1994. See more of his work here. To submit a Call 4 Action, click here.

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