SALT LAKE CITY — Giving your landlord a deposit plus the first month's rent is nothing new. But what happens when that so-called landlord takes off with your money?
Scams of all kinds, including this one, become popular for awhile, disappear for a couple of years, and then return.
It's obvious that any landlord who vanishes with the money is not the real property owner. But these thieves are convincing. They know all about the property, they'll send you a rental contract, sometimes even provide the key.
Susan Bare and Bill Biondi loved what they saw of a condo in Sugar House.
"It looked nice," Bare said. "The whole area looked really nice."
The prospective renters were wowed by photos of a top floor unit with new cabinets, granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, a big covered deck and beautifully maintained complex with ponds, tennis courts and a swimming pool.
"The pictures we were sent were just gorgeous," Biondi said.
The price was equally gorgeous: $680 per month.
That's anywhere from $400 to nearly $700 below what comparable Sugar House homes are renting for on real estate website Zillow.com.
Bare emailed the woman who posted the rental ad on Craigslist to make sure she had the right price. She confirmed it at $680 for the first month and a $600 deposit, which included HOA fees.
Bare and Biondi couldn't let that opportunity pass. They asked to see the place, and that's where they started to run into trouble.
"She was going to be gone for a couple of months," Bare said, "and we'd have to go look in the windows."
"She had the key with her," Biondi added, "so there was nobody there she could trust enough for us to go in and look at it."
In the emails back and forth, the owner identified herself as Beverly Breen. She said she initially wanted to sell the condo, but her pesky real estate agent listed it too high and no one seemed interested in buying it.
Bare and Biondi were very interested in renting it until they discussed method of payment.
"'Send me a MoneyGram. You're the first ones that showed interest in it. We want to rent it to you. Send us a MoneyGram,'" Biondi quoted her as saying.
However, Moneygrams can be tricky business and it's recommended that the sender knows the receiver in the transaction. They can be picked by anyone, anywhere, just like Western Union.
- I always need to see the owner or property manager in person, maybe even visit their office, before I give them any money.
- I won't give anyone any money before I get to see the inside of the place.
KSL tracked down the real Beverly Breen. She became aware of the scam six weeks ago when a young man knocked on her door and asked about renting her condo. She thought it was a mistake. Then she received phone calls, including a voicemail from a man telling her he had just wired the money to her.
"He said he'd gone out and sent the money for the first month's rent and he was worried someone else would take the apartment," she said.
How did the scammers get Breen's name? And why her condo?
It turns out the scammers found a legitimate online listing, not for her condo but her neighbor's place. The neighbor lives directly below Breen.
To make their scam appear more legit, the crooks apparently decided they needed to use the property owner's name. They punched the street address into a public records database, and up popped Breen's name.
Same building, wrong condo, but close enough for creating a bogus ad and duping people out of their money.
"It really irritates me that people take advantage of others," Breen said. "I think everyone should go out and work for their money."
"If you can't deal with someone face to face, I don't want to deal with you. ‘I'll give you they key after you give me the money' is not going to fly. No," Biondi said.
This is only one way the rental scam works. Sometimes thieves send keys in the mail. Sometimes they tell you to send the money and the key is under the doormat. A common thread: prospective renters are required to wire money through Moneygram or Western Union.