Beware of this growing rental house scam in Columbia and SC

This past weekend, Joseph Johnson of Columbia was looking for a rental home for him and his girlfriend, Miranda. He needed to move fast.

Johnson, 23, spied a Craigslist ad for a cute two-bedroom, one-bath home on Prentice Avenue in Rosewood – $600 a month with all utilities included. He called the supposed owner, who apologized that he was out of town and unable to show the house.

Johnson was encouraged to peek in the windows, and after doing so, he agreed to rent the home and sent $700 to the man via a Walmart money transfer.

The problem was, the so-called landlord didn’t own the house.

“I’ve been down in the dumps about it,” he said. “If you’re like me, this happened at a time when you really, really didn’t need it.”

Johnson was the victim of a growing con job in Columbia and South Carolina – scammers lifting legitimate house for sale ads from real estate websites and re-advertising them on sites like Craigslist.

The exact number of complaints to the S.C. Department of Consumers Affairs was not immediately available Thursday. But a spokeswoman said complaints had been coming in at about five to 10 per year. But in September, the scam jumped into the agency’s top three scams, agency spokeswoman Juliana Harris said.

Columbia is particularly vulnerable to these types of scams, she said, because it is home to the University of South Carolina and Fort Jackson.

“We have a big transient population,” she said. “You have a lot of people looking for temporary housing.”

Johnson found out he was scammed when he called real estate agent Graeme Moore, with the Moore Company, after the keys didn’t arrive when promised. Moore found a legitimate ad listing the 1,216-square-foot home for sale for $159,500.

“This happened to me last year to a home I owned,” Moore said.

The house was three doors down from Moore’s personal residence. He saw people milling about and entering the home through a back door that had been forced open.

“And I’m only one real estate agent out of 3,000 in the market,” he said.

But the problem is not exclusive to the Capital City. The South Carolina coast is highly vulnerable as well because of the high number of vacation rentals.

A few years ago, Moore’s mother narrowly avoided a similar scam when she was searching for a vacation home in the Lowcountry.

“The guy said he couldn’t show the home because he was on a mission trip, but was looking for good Christian renters,” Moore said.

Johnson said he should have been more careful.

“There were a couple of red flags I should have seen,” he said.

And Johnson admitted he is little embarrassed that he was duped.

“I’m telling my story because I don’t want the same thing to happen to other people,” he said

How to avoid rental scams

▪ Look up the owner. You can seek out the real owner and his or her contact information by looking up the property on the register of deeds website.

▪ Talk to the person. Don’t rely on just email correspondence.

▪ Be suspicious. Does the owner have a free email service rather than one that indicates an established relationship with a utility company, such as Time Warner or Verizon?

▪ Ask for references. Request that the owner give you references from other tenants. What was their experience with the transaction?

▪ Pay by credit card. Don’t pay via wire transfer or bank account transfer.

▪ Background the property. Check online for duplicate listings or negative information related to the listing/owner.

▪ Get it in writing. It is very important to get any verbal promises in writing. Review the contract carefully before forking over any cash.

SOURCE: S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs