BUSINESS & ECONOMY

Mercer County Officials Warn of Renter Scams

By Erin Delmore
Correspondent

Trenton mom Brittany Stevenson thought her new home was legit. She found it through rental websites Zillow and Trulia and she hammered out the deal in person.

“I gave the broker the security deposit. She said, ‘OK, I still have to contact the landlord to get your lease over to you. However, when you bring me the money do not give me a money order. She needs cash.’ So that was weird to me. However, I gave the broker all the security deposit. The same day I did that, I moved in. However, I still didn’t receive the key or signed a copy of the lease,” she said.

Stevenson was evicted and out her $1,300 deposit. She’s one of many swindled by people posing as landlords or agents who rent out properties without the rights.

“Although there are often warning signs, it’s easy to be tricked. But the lessons are expensive,” said Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes.

A glut of foreclosed properties has given rise to a new kind of “squatter” like Stevenson — unaware their new homes are rife with legal, health and safety issues.

“In this state, we have some of the most desperate people looking for affordable, decent housing and many times there are those unscrupulous people out there preying on them,” said Sen. Shirley Turner.

Trenton officials are taking aim at these rental scams with new resources for residents. The Mercer County Fraudulent Housing Occupancy Task Force — a group of officials from law enforcement, public health, social services and consumer affairs — spoke in front of a bank-owned property that had been investigated for months, occupied by squatters and boarded up last week.

“This is not just a local problem, but one that exists in cities across our country, here in our county, particularly in those jurisdictions that have hundreds of vacant properties that are bank-owned because of the foreclosure crisis,” said Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson.

Couple that with the growth of online home-search services and renters are ripe for a rip-off. Legislation to criminalize fraudulent actions by “impostor landlords” is in the works in both the state Senate and Assembly.

“They target the more vulnerable populations. They also target people who should know better, myself included. This summer I tried to rent a beach house at the Jersey Shore for my family, saw a great deal on a waterfront. When they asked me to wire them money to an offshore account, I then called the host of the website and we found out that this site had been hijacked,” said Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio.

Jackson shared a couple of tips with renters. Most importantly, never pay cash and demand written proof of all your rent payments. Never rent a property site unseen and sit down with the person you’ll be renting from face-to-face. If he or she doesn’t show an interest in where you work or how much you make, consider it a red flag.