HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Honolulu police Lieutenant, John McCarthy is on the front line of the war against internet financial crimes. One of the most insidious operating right now -- online rental scams.
"I'd say it's epidemic," said McCarthy. "Its come and gone through the years but its probably peaking. It's the worst I've ever seen it."
HOW THE RENTAL SCAM WORKS:
Crooks are creating fraudulent online rental ads by stealing real pictures and rental information for legitimate apartment advertisements. Sometimes they steal pictures of homes for sale and post them as being up for rent. The criminal then pretends to be the owner, property manager, or realtor. Then posts the fake ads on legitimate classified style websites that you trust.
"There's Trulia. There's Craigslist. There's budget rentals, rentals.com," said McCarthy. "You name it they're on it."
RED FLAG 1 - Low Advertised Rent
The baited hook to get you to respond to them, is a listing for a property with VERY low rent or a "too good be true" sale price. That should be your first red flag. Experts say homeowners are looking to maximize what they get in rent, not undercut it.
"Usually about twice a month we get a call from somebody saying you know I saw a particular ad and the price was too good to be true," said local realtor and property manager, Lurline Johnson. "Do you know anything about this? Have you heard anything? We're always warning people if it seems too good to be true, it probably is."
"Not too long ago we did an investigation which a home was up for sale. And it was listed on a half a dozen sites as a rental," reflected McCarthy. "And the thing is, it was a home in Hawaii Kai and the rental was phenomenally cheap, like $1500 a month for a 3 bedroom home, corner lot, well kept, well maintained residence."
If you bite and contact the person, they may ask you for alot of personal information that could put your identity at risk.
RED FLAG 2 - Out of State Story / Can't Show You Inside
They try to reel you in with a convincing story of why they can't show you the "inside of the apartment." Usually preying on your good nature with a story about how their doing missionary work in Africa. But the crook tells you, don't worry you can see what it looks like from the interior pictures online. But don't fall for it.
"Sometimes, they'll even tell you to drive by to take a look," said McCarthy. It's sort of like a consolation prize, meant to comfort you.
And the written English used by the criminal's in their communications with you, usually isn't very good. But experts say they're working on that to improve their scam.
In one email reply, a suspect wrote to the prospective renter, "The keys and the document is here with me in Portland, Oregon and you driveby and view the exterior of the apartment for you to know where the apartment is located."
RED FLAG 3 - Wire Money Before You Get Keys
And if you like the place, the con artist says he can Federal Express you the rental agreement, all you have to do is fill it, wire him the money and he'll mail you the keys.
"Sometimes they'll say I'm traveling. I'm in Africa. Western Union me the money," warns McCarthy. "The problem with Western Union is once it's in the system, it can go anywhere in the world. Anyone in the world can pick that up claiming to be that person."
Other scams around the world, have involved criminals wanting you to prove you can afford the property by wiring money to Western Union first, where they say they can't touch it, and show send them your receipt as proof. But don't do that either, the thieves can use the receipt in order to pick up the money at any Western Union around the world.
And many people are falling for the scam.
Johnson said of one woman's story, "She ended up sending $1500 in anticipation of keys to come in the mail, and it never happened. So she was totally out, all of this money."
"It links back to West Africa sometimes Ghana," said McCarthy. "That's where the money is being Western Unioned. They've been pretty successful. They're making anywhere from $1500 to $3000 each time. And with the volume of cases coming in, you're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars we're aware of, not to mention the ones that we don't know anything about."
"Never do anything just on the phone or online," said Johnson. "And never send money without seeing a property for sure."
Coming up Tuesday at 10 p.m. -- the second part of the investigative series "Rent At Your Own Risk." The feds are well aware of problem but the elusive crooks are hard to catch. We'll show you how a little detective work on your part might just keep you from being the next victim.