If it’s too good to be true, be cautious in Steamboat’s tight housing market, police say

As if navigating Steamboat Springs’ tight housing market wasn't hard enough, some people seeking houses have become victims to scams where people posing as property owners take advantage of those desperate for a place to live.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Too often these days Steamboat Springs Police Detective Gregory Griffin finds himself talking to people who have lost thousands of dollars trying to obtain housing.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen any uptick because this is something we deal with pretty regularly,” Griffin said. “What we see is (scammers) take either an Airbnb listing or a real estate listing for somebody selling their house, and they turn that fraudulently into a Craigslist ad.”

He expalined the scams play on the fact that many people are desperate to secure a place to live and are willing to use some type of electronic payment to try to secure the properties in the false advertisements. In many cases, people are willing to send money without even seeing the property or meeting anyone.

“They’ll try to get people interested in the property to send them an electronic transfer for the down payment or the security deposit on a place,” Griffin said. “People will do that sight unseen because they’re so eager to find a place or it seems like such a good deal.”

In these cases, the person who posted the advertisement has no connection to the property, and the property was never available.

The scheme works because the victim feels a sense of urgency. Griffin said it’s not difficult to scam people in today’s housing market, and many times separating legitimate housing offers from fraudulent ones can be difficult.

On average, Griffin investigates three to five fraudulent cases a month, and he believes there are more but victims are either too embarrassed to report it or feel that nothing can be done after the fact.

“Most of the time, it’s the first and last months’ rent and a security deposit,” Griffin said. “I’d say on average it’s probably between $3,000 and $5,000 that people are losing in these deals.”

His advice is to meet the people leasing a property in person and to make sure that person has a legitimate standing to lease the property.

“Most of the time things happen via text or via email, so if that’s the only way somebody’s willing to communicate, there is a very high likelihood that is fraudulent,” Griffin said. “If at all possible, get eyes on the place in person before you send any money.”

He said he has also seen some fake ads on Facebook, though it happens less often than with Craigslist. He said an easy way to check these ads is to do a Google search.

“Oftentimes that’s one of the first places we start when we see these fraudulent Craigslist ads,” Griffin said. “If it immediately pops up under (real estate websites) or Airbnb or anything like that, this is definitely not a legitimate listing. In many cases, they took the exact listing off of Zillow or something like that.”

Griffin said it’s often difficult to catch up to the people responsible for these scams, and in most cases, as soon as the money has been transferred, there’s very little success for being able to recover it.

“Most of the time, these scams are perpetuated by people overseas in another country,” Griffin said. ”We do the best we can to investigate it, write the search warrants for the accounts and get any information we can to try and develop a suspect. However, in this day and age with IP phones and fraudulent email addresses, basically anybody being able to set up a bank account can have that money transferred somewhere overseas or anywhere else.”

He also admits that because many of the scams are perpetrated by people outside the United States, there is little chance that police can prosecute or go further with the case.

“I would highly advise anybody against sending an electronic transfer for any kind of rental, down payment, first and last months’ rent, or security deposit. There’s just no knowing where that money is going versus a check where there’s at least somebody who has to take that and deposit it,” Griffin said.

“The other thing I would say is if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. With our housing market and where things are at, if it’s well under the market rate of everything else that you’re seeing, chances are very high that it’s fraudulent.”

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