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'It' City Housing Demand Gives Rise To Online Rental Scams

Sarah Fowler's East Nashville address was randomly pulled for a fake Craigslist ad.
Natasha Senjanovic
Sarah Fowler's East Nashville address was randomly pulled for a fake Craigslist ad.

Hear the radio version of this story.With thousands relocating to Nashville each year, the city’s real estate market is experiencing one of the most competitive booms in its history. And as housing demand has spiked, so have a few particular kinds of rental scams.

When I first moved to Nashville from New York, I wanted to sublet a place, to get my bearings. And I ran into serious sticker shock on short-term rental sites. So I turned to Craigslist.


For one property, a man couldn’t keep his story straight on the phone. But hewasconsistent about my paying for it sight unseen. I hung up feeling foolish – but I was not alone.


My colleague Lee Hale also needed a sublet.He almostsent money to a man supposedly in Iowa, for a Nashville apartment he could only view from the outside.


He admits, "I think it was one of those moments that I was so close to doing something so, so stupid."


Why would we even answer ads written in terrible English, with out-of-town owners and yet suspiciously professional photos? In a word, desperation.


Which is exactly what scammers count on, according to Sergeant Michael Warren, who heads the Metro Police fraud unit. "With all scams, there’s two things the perpetrator is trying to instill in the victim, either fear or urgency," he says. "If they can instill either one of those, then you will not think through the situation."


There are no exact numbers for these scams because they’re often grouped in broad categories – like, “real estate fraud.” And they aren’t just targeting newcomers.


Warren’s office put me in touch with Shuntay Medaris, who lost a thousand dollars after her family had to find a new home in less than a month. Which is "alot of money to lose when you have five kids," she says.


Medaris found a greathome online, belonging to a busy ER doctor with no time for phone calls, only texts. The owner demanded a good faith deposit, saying many other people were lined up to take it.


Medaris panicked and fell for a common scam. You’re asked to load money on, say, gift cards or prepaid credit cards – then send photos of them as proof that you the have money for a deposit.  


"I sent her a text showing that I’d purchased the cards," says Medaris, "and she got the information off the cards and registered them in her name and she blocked it to where I couldn’t get any information off the cards."


Police say victims rarely get their money back because it’s not as if theactualproperty owners are running these scams.


Sarah Fowler, for example, isnotrenting out her East Nashville home. Scammers plugged her address into an ad lifted from another site — perhaps even another city — and put in their own contact information. She found out when an elderly man came by, after receiving a fake leasefor her house.


Fowler was disturbed to know that she had been even passively involved with potentially swindling peopleand initially didn't think that reporting such ads was useful. "I feel like I wasn’t very well informed before, but I will definitely contact the police now," she says.


Police do wantall fraudulent listings reported — even though local law enforcement may have no jurisdiction to prosecute. That's because scammers who prey on a hot market could be operating anywherein theworld.




Copyright 2016 WPLN News

Natasha Senjanovic