Houston’s rental market is a scammer’s paradise

‘The more anxiety there is for people, the easier it is for scammers,’ says FBI official

Rental Scams, Houston

The South Texas rental market is still in a frenzy, with homes receiving multiple offers within days and some applicants offering well-above asking rent to stand out.

When Casey Batiste and Anthony Colar found an online listing for what seemed like the perfect home, they thought the listing agent’s entreaty, “I need you to act fast” was a bit odd. But they sent over $2,500 for the first month’s rent and a security deposit. Shortly after that, all communications stopped and they realized they had been duped.

Rental scams are on the rise, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Houston area rents were roughly $130 more this April than the year before, according to the multifamily research company Apartment Data. Inflation and climbing eviction rates are applying a lot of pressure on prospective renters to secure a good deal— making people like Batiste and Colar vulnerable to scammers.

According to Jennifer Wauhob, chairman of the Houston Association of Realtors, the grift goes like this: a scammer will list a home that is often legitimately on the market, either for lease or for sale. “When people are so eager to get that home, they send their first month’s rent, the deposit, to a landlord — and it turns out that person is not in fact the landlord,” she says.

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This is the most common type of scam reported to the bureau’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. Renters also have significantly fewer options than the general population. Because of low incomes, poor credit or issues with background checks, they are especially vulnerable to scams that prey on the desperate.

“It’s a seller’s market, and there is a housing shortage,” said CJ Jones, a public information officer at the FBI’s Houston office. “The more anxiety there is for people, the easier it is for scammers to scam them.”

Con artists will typically use the name of a legitimate real estate agent or brokerage, with a slight change to the contact info, says Jones. They’ll even include a fake backstory explaining why the home is being rented so cheaply, i.e., the owner needed to leave the country on short notice and is looking for a family to take care of their home like their own. This is a popular ruse, as it helps convince a prospective renter to send funds to a foreign account or use cashier’s checks.

New technology in real estate has helped enable scammers, says Wauhob. Many rental companies have adopted technologies to allow prospective renters to give themselves tours, scammers can actually show homes. In fact, Batiste and Colar were provided a Zoom tour of the apartment before handing thousands of dollars over to their scammer.

For Houston area renters, Wauhob and Jones recommend steering clear of pushy or eager landlords and keeping to listings on HAR.com and the association’s app, which are only posted by licensed real estate agents.

[Houston Chronicle] — Maddy Sperling