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Lancaster Police warn of potential rental scams making their way to the area

The scams usually involve phony listings on websites like Craigslist or 'phantom rentals' that offer amenities and prices that seem too good to be true, police say

LANCASTER, Pa. — Lancaster City Police are warning residents about a property rental scam that has made its way to the Lancaster area.

The scam involves rental properties and listings, police say.

"Now that Covid-19 protocols are in place for many companies, scammers are taking advantage of this new environment," the police department said. "Our detectives have been alerted to several instances on a scheme involving rental properties. 

"What they have learned is that a prospective renter finds a real estate rental listing online (Facebook, Craigslist, etc.). These listings are usually copied from legitimate advertisements for past rental properties. The scammers re-post the listing with a different phone number than the legitimate add. 

"When prospective renters make contact with the 'landlord' and express interest, they are told that they can't show the apartment/property until the renters are approved and they attribute that to COVID-19 changes in rules. 

"The prospective renter fills out a rental agreement that is also accompanied by some type of deposit requirement. In local cases, the scammers used CashApp to receive the "deposit" funds. The renters then receive text communications that they will receive keys through the mail."

Lancaster Police say the Office of the Attorney General for District of Columbia had some helpful definitions and tips on their webpage  

How a Rental Scam Works

Scammers primarily rely on two types of rental scams, according to police:

  • Hijacked listings: A hijacked listing copies a legitimate advertisement—photos, location, description—and posts it on another website with different contact information. This type of scam seems legitimate because it mimics a real property, but the person you are communicating with is a scammer, not the owner.
  • Phantom rentals: A phantom rental is a listing that uses photos of a property that is not located at the advertised address. This scam attempts to steal your money or information before you find out the property does not exist.

Both types of these scams lure renters with extremely low rental prices and lavish amenities, police say. Once they have your attention, they request money (such as an application fee) or financial information for the property they cannot deliver. 

Victims sometimes don’t even realize they have been cheated until they show up to the property and find that it does not exist or is not for rent, according to police.

Tips to Avoid Rental Scams

Good deals on rentals do exist, but make sure you do your research to make an informed decision, police say.

Here are some tips to avoid being scammed:

  • Beware of a deal that seems too good to be true. Make sure that the listing is comparable to other properties in the area.
  • Research the property. If you are signing a long-term lease, you should always view the property in advance of sending money or signing a contract. To avoid hijacked listings, use an online search engine to search some of the listing’s key words to see if the property pops up on another site with different contact information; if it does, it’s probably a scam.
  • Avoid properties where the landlord will not reveal the address. Do not send money or share financial information if the landlord is unwilling to give you an address that you can research. This is a warning sign of a phantom rental.
  • Don’t rush into a decision. It is a red flag if a landlord insists that you must act immediately to take advantage of a property. The scammer may be hoping to rush payment before you have time to research the listing.
  • Never wire money or pay with prepaid card. If you use these forms of payment and are scammed, it is difficult to get your money back.

Police say Craigslist also has a link for recognizing and avoiding scams (https://www.craigslist.org/about/scams): 

  • Deal locally, face-to-face —follow this one rule and avoid 99% of scam attempts.
  • Do not provide payment to anyone you have not met in person.
  • Beware offers involving shipping - deal with locals you can meet in person.
  • Never wire funds (e.g. Western Union) - anyone who asks you to is a scammer.
  • Don't accept cashier/certified checks or money orders - banks cash fakes, then hold you responsible.
  • Transactions are between users only, no third party provides a "guarantee".
  • Never give out financial info (bank account, social security, paypal account, etc).
  • Do not rent or purchase sight-unseen—that amazing "deal" may not exist.
  • Refuse background/credit checks until you have met landlord/employer in person.
  • "craigslist voicemails" - Any message asking you to access or check "craigslist voicemails" or "craigslist voice messages" is fraudulent - no such service exists.