Here's what you can do to avoid losing money to fake rental listings online that include real pictures of homes which may really be for sale or for rent.
"It's a beautiful place. It's got everything that you want, and it's going for a really really good price. It's almost too good to be true type of pricing situation," Steven Sulikowski said.
But the pictures of the property were lifted from legitimate ads and used to create a fake rental ad on another, classified website. Sulikowski and Mary Arndt of McHenry fell for the scam, paying a $50 "application fee" only to find out people already lived in the home which was not for rent.
"They said to us, 'No, the place is not for sale, not for rent,'" Sulikowski said.
The couple filed a police report and continued to look for a new place. They found another rental ad - another scam. This time, the couple went in person and found the home was for sale, not for rent.
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"We've seen it across the region," said Paris Lewbel, with the Aurora Police Dept.
The problem is so bad in west suburban Aurora, police have issued an alert. Lewbel showed numerous police reports filed by people who were ripped off.
The increase, police say, is due to the high demand for rental homes during the pandemic.
Lewbel took the I-Team to a home that was used for a fake rental ad.
"You want to look for things that might look out of place," he explained. "So, for instance, we've seen some of these posts where someone takes a screenshot from that Zillow posting, but you can see the black bar at the top and the bottom. You can see kind of that swipe up bar on the iPhone, or maybe the screenshot information with the time on it. So those are immediate red flags."
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Police say criminals are using the Facebook Marketplace platform and other platforms to place phony ads.
"We've even seen instances where it's almost exactly the same post that they see on the realtor's website, it's just now on Facebook Marketplace," added Lewbel.
Realtors like Krystal Heredia said it's disheartening to see their listings being manipulated.
"Some guy using the name David was posting it on Facebook Marketplace for $800 and people were sending him money," Heredia said. "They were excited because they thought it was a great deal. It's actually renting for $1,400."
Heredia recommends looking up the property address on multiple websites to make sure you are reaching the correct contact person.
"Some of our victims who went there with the, you know, suspect landlord and they could never get in," Chicago Police Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan said.
He says people should be very suspicious if they aren't able to take an in-person tour of the home.
"You want to go to the home. You want to speak to the real estate agent, or the landlord, and, you know, make sure that they can gain access to the house, and you know and you're able to go back and then there's a number, and there's a couple different ways to contact them," Deenihan said.
Police say you shouldn't blindly be sending application fees or deposits to strangers, who put on the pressure to pay.
"You don't want to send money to strangers as younger people are looking to rent and looking to buy," Deenihan added. "I think they have grown up in a process where they're used to doing this, and it's a little bit more. They're just willing to do it, instead of, you know, doing their checks and balances and ensuring that they're not, ensuring they're sending money to someone that they know in a trusted site."
Sulikowski and Arndt are still hoping to find a real rental home. They may now turn to a licensed realtor who can find legitimate homes, usually at no cost to renters.
If you are a victim of this, report to police. But even if you don't lose money and you think you see a fake ad for a rental home, you can alert the platform where the fake ad exists. Most of them will take down the suspicious ads quickly so people don't get scammed.