Tips to Avoid Rental Housing Scams

By Briana Vannozzi

At least 22 victims have been defrauded a total of nearly $30,000 through online rental housing scams, according to police in Union County. Linden Police Capt. William Turbett says scammers are using the popular classified ad website Craigslist to trick renters into paying cash deposits for property listings that either don’t exist or already have owners.

“They were given a date when they could get into the apartment and they were pulling up to get into the apartment and finding out there was someone else living there,”┬áTurbett said.

Turbett says the department made two arrests in connection with the scams following a five-month investigation. The defendants — Allan Betancourt and Mrya Sullivan — allegedly duped prospective renters in both Linden and Union Township through a well thought out scheme. In one case, victims say they were given a key, only to find out it didn’t work for that apartment.

“Some people never saw properties. There were actually several cases where the person had a key to the apartment somehow, from being a previous renter, and was able to get these people to go in and look inside the apartment when there was no one else there and say, ‘I’m going to be moving out at a certain time and you will be able to get into this house,'” Turbett explained.

“As of right now, in Union itself we’re talking about 17 victims totaling approximately over $20,000,” said Union Township Police Department Sgt. Victor Correia.

Correia says it’s likely there were dozens more people who contacted the defendants through the fake listings, but didn’t follow through or pay the deposits. He says they often asked for a full month’s rent to secure the property. Instead they were left homeless, with empty pockets.

“And then when they realized that this was not the place, they then had to make other means such as living in a hotel, rent a hotel room, go live back home and start the process of looking somewhere else again, because they already gave notice to where they were coming out of before,” Correia said.

“Nobody should just accept cash. No legitimate person will tell you just to get them cash ahead of time. Always make sure you can go see the apartment. Try to get into it. Even talk to neighbors there,” Turbett said.

Both departments recommend stopping by the police department in the listing’s neighborhood to find out if that property has been involved in any past fraud and doing a little homework on other real estate sites or a simple web search on the landlord.

NJTV News was also in contact with two alleged victims in Newark. They say they were scammed out of money through a “finder’s fee” from a Craigslist landlord. They asked us not to share their names or specifics of their story publicly, though police say the best way to fight this kind of cyber crime is by coming forward with a criminal complaint.