HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - It's an alluring advertisement - cheap rent that seems too good to be true. That's because it probably is.
"As soon as you see a home on the internet below market prices, your anti-scam antennae should go up," said Special Agent, Tom Simon of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Kapolei.
It's likely a fake rental ad created by a criminal thousands of miles away using stolen pictures of real rental properties then posting them on legitimate websites like Craigslist, Trulia and Rentals.com.
The crook often uses the name of the real homeowner in his contact email address, and lists a phone number that hides his true location.
"You don't need to be in Las Vegas, in California or New York or where ever your area code, if it's that VOIP phone, Skype or Magic Jack," said Honolulu Police Lieutenant John McCarthy. "You can call anywhere in the world because the number that shows is the number that's assigned to you. So that's deceiving."
The con-artist says he's out of the country – often times doing missionary work, unable to show you the "inside" of the property. But he'll send you the rental contract, you wire him the money, and he'll mail you the keys.
"Aggressive, out of context mentions of God or Jesus and missionary work, are very common in these Nigerian scams because they want to take advantage of the inherent trust that religious people have in other religious people," said Agent Simon. "But don't fall for it. They're taking advantage of you, if they go there."
With the growth of technology and the internet, criminals are flocking to financial scams. And the growing trend is in "Rental Scams". Criminals are targeting prospective renters, even homeowners. And when the trail leads oversees, well that poses some challenges for the FBI.
Simon says the agency has limited resources and other crimes end up taking priority over these cases when the trail leads oversees where international relations tie their hands.
"Even if the FBI were to investigate this thing and chase the bad guys to the ends of the earth, most of them are living quite comfortably in Nigeria," said Simon. "And Nigeria is not very excited about the idea of handing their citizens over to the FBI for prosecution in Hawaii."
Simon says in the end, you are your own best defense against these scams.
"We have the aloha spirit here and we give everybody the benefit of the doubt," said Simon. But when you're dealing with strangers on the internet, it's time to put your guard up and maybe not send that stranger all your money."
So here's what you can do:
Rental Scam Tips - Before you send any response
1) Cross-check the Ad Online
2) Compare Honolulu Board of Realtors / HICentral.com
3) Check location & property ownership
4) Verify with local office of Realtor or Property Manager>
First, cross-check the ad online with a couple of google searches. Reference websites like the Honolulu Board of Realtors and HiCentral.com and see if the property owner matches the address. If the ad lists a realtor or property manager, be cautious because it may be fake. Search the web for that company's website and contact it about the property.
"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 Realtor and Property Manager, Lurline Johnson. Do you know anything about this? Have you heard anything?"
The Honolulu Board of Realtors is well aware of the scam that's going on in the industry. But it's not just hurting consumers, its hurting legitimate real estate agents as well.
Johnson's had to fight to regain her reputation after a resident filed a complaint against her believing she had been trying to scam her. Johnson discovered her identity was hijacked and used by a criminal in a fake rental advertisement.
"I find that when they're stealing our information, they're taking everything," said Johnson. "They're taking our verbiage. They're taking every single picture. They're taking our picture of the agent and just posting it and changing the email or changing the phone number. And the one that I saw, the email was very close to what mine was."
Rental Scam Tips; After Initial Checks
1) Contact the person, but DON'T give any personal information
2) Big Test: Can you see INSIDE?
3) If NO = SCAM
4) Contact Police & Website Host>
Finally, if the ad clears your initial checks, contact the person, but don't give them any detailed personal information such as your address or social security number.
And here's the BIG TEST! Under Hawaii law, the owner is required show you the "inside" of the property, not just direct you to online pictures of the interior. So, if they can't do that, it's a scam. Contact police and alert the website where you found the ad.
Beware! Criminals are always improving their game. What began as a scam a ten years ago on people seeking vacation rental homes, has spread to regular rentals, and now even to long term hotel stays and time share property, according to McCarthy.
"We've had them come all the way to Hawaii, walk up to the hotel desk and say, I'm here, where's my room; only to find out that they were scammed," McCarthy said.
He added that vacation rentals have to be registered with the County and people should contact the real hotel if you've booked a room and verify your stay.
Simon said the FBI in Honolulu receive numerous calls about various internet financial scams being conducted in Hawaii. Unfortunately, the criminals are hard to bring to justice.
"If these bad guys come to Hawaii, we're on them like a cheap suit," said Simon. "But as long as they're hiding out in Nigeria, there's just not a lot we can do to get our hands on them."
Johnson said the Honolulu Board of Realtors and others are trying to figure what else can be done on their part to help stop the criminals.
"Until we have some legitimate means of making this go away and I'm not even sure how that's going to happen, we just have to be diligent and make sure that we are staying ahead of the game," said Johnson.
That's because the criminals are always trying to stay one step ahead of us.