SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) — Scams related to COVID-19 are on the rise, and in the Bay Area that means more fake apartment listings.

Potential renter AJ Baxter has been searching for a new apartment in San Jose, where he found a three bedroom, three bathroom apartment listed for $1,925 a month. Baxter thought it was too good to be true and quickly found out he was right.

“So it’s kind of hard during this very interesting time to decipher between what’s real and what’s fake,” he said. “We’ve been doing a lot of reach out and actually been running into quite a few different scams.”

So far this year the FTC has received 18,235 reports of scams related to Covid-19. Consumers have lost $13.4 million dollars to these types of fraud including fake apartment listings where scammers are now using social distancing as a convenient excuse.

Baxter showed us a series of emails he received from a suspected scammer named “Adam.” Right off the bat, Adam tells him that due to social distancing he cannot see the unit in person. He then gets right to the hard sell pushing Baxter to “reserve the place before someone else does because other people are showing interest.”

Adam also asked Baxter for his social security number.

“The most interesting part about it is the price that he had on the property was probably 50% of the market rate, so it was really obvious that something was going on,” Baxter said.

So Baxter asked, “Is this a scam?”

Adam was ready with another excuse, this time he blamed the federal government, saying the property was initially listed at a higher price but all homeowners have been asked to lower their rents during the pandemic, which simply isn’t true.

Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety Capt. Dan Pistor says requests for personal information are a big red flag, he wants consumers to know social distancing is not an excuse. In many cases you can tour vacant properties by getting access to a lock box.

“If a listing sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” said Pistor.

You should always verify that the company is legitimate through their website, email accounts and by talking to the person on the phone or via FaceTime. Don’t respond to listings that require cash or wire transfers. Up-front credit checks are also a red flag.

“What these scammers will typically try to do is they’ll try to get as much of your personal information upfront as fast as possible, because that’s the goal of this scam is to grow it into identity theft,” Pistor said.

“We ourselves have been victims of people trying to copy our listings,” said Chuck Hattemer co-founder of OneRent, a property management startup.

To fight back against the scammers, Hattemer created a site called Scamlord AI that can help consumers identify a fake post.

“We figured, hey, we have the experience and a database of all these scammers, so why don’t we build technology that can help people detect and stop fake landlords,” Hattemer said.

After Hattemer sent us an example of a listing his site flagged as fake, we let them give us the runaround.

We inquired about a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in Sunnyvale listed on Craigslist for an unrealistic $900 a month. The lister told us he had moved to Spain and was now renting through Airbnb.

He started asking us for personal information like our Whatsapp number and a driver license photo. Next he told us, after forgetting to paste our name in what looks like a stock email, “Dear blank, unfortunately it’s not possible to see it prior to booking and payment this is Airbnb policy.” Which isn’t true. He also told us he wouldn’t be able to create the Airbnb listing without our driver license photo.

We tracked down the legitimate listing, Via Apartments which rents this unit and others like it for upwards of $3,800 a month, after we talked to Via Apartments, the Craigslist posting disappeared.

“It’s awful, I mean, the pandemic is hard enough itself,” Baxter said.

Baxter is still searching for a new place and struggling to trust online listings. Luckily, he backed out before things went too far, but he knows other renters are still getting duped right now.

“They didn’t really take much from me, except for my time, but I do feel bad for those people that lost their job, got evicted from their homes, and now they have what seems like a very promising property listing at a cost that maybe they can afford,” Baxter said.

 

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