High-tech rental scam targets unsuspecting house hunters

ABC7 I-Team Investigation

Jason Knowles Image
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
High-tech rental scam
The ABC7 I-Team is investigating a rental scam that's using technology to trick people out of their money.

BOLINGBROOK, Ill. (WLS) -- The ABC7 I-Team is investigating a rental scam that's using technology to trick people out of their money.

The scheme is simple: a fake landlord can easily obtain entry codes to rental homes from a legitimate website and then dupe unsuspecting house hunters out of security deposits.

The I-Team is revealing how easily it can be done after obtaining access to suburban homes. It took only 30 seconds for me to get access codes to open a lock box and get inside a 3-bedroom Bolingbrook home that rents for about $2,200 a month.

The person giving me the information to get in is not the landlord or a realtor - it's a colleague in North Carolina working with the I-Team to expose this nationwide risk to would-be renters.

The concern is that anyone can access those codes and get the keys - opening doors for people to pose as property owners, preying on unsuspecting renters.

The two homes we entered are listed on americanhomes4rent.com, a legitimate rental company's website. And when you click on the "let yourself in" option you're directed to a third-party service called Rently, where you register with a credit card.

Rently says it has algorithms that prevent suspicious activity like overseas registrations, fake numbers and fake credit cards. And that it's had 1 million check ins with "...very few incidences..."

"I could be a potential victim- she could be a potential scam artist, pretending to own this home or have legitimate access to this home - yet she doesn't. I send her the money and I never get the home," ABC7's Jason Knowles said.

Rently also says most property managers have signs like these outside of homes with the accurate contact information.

But Valerie Thorpe says she lost $1,700 to someone who manipulated the system.

"I really blinked and thought that this was going to be perfect for me and my kids and now I am having to start over with absolutely nothing," Thorpe said.

Thorpe said she sent a deposit to a con artist who had nothing to do with American Homes 4 Rent, but he used that site to get information on the listing, obtain a key code, and then to post his own fraudulent ad on Craigslist.

"He said when you get to the property, give me a call and I will give you the code to get into the lockbox," Thorpe said.

As for those homes we entered, the I-Team found that American Homes 4 Rent actually owns them, not individual landlords.

The company didn't respond to our interview requests about scammers potentially using their listings to do harm, so the I-Team stopped by a regional office in Schaumburg.

Knowles: "Did you know the lockbox codes can be used by scammers to trick renters into sending money?"

A manager said, "We can't comment on anything locally."

American Homes 4 Rent and Rently do warn customers online to beware of rental scams and to verify the identity of the property manager before sending any money.

Experts say the best way to protect yourself is to work with a licensed realtor who will show you properties and verify legitimate landlords - and never wire money to a stranger.