Courtney Greer is a college student searching for a home to rent.
So she and her fiance found a home for rent on Zillow.com, and assumed everything was legit, since it was a reputable real estate website.
"This house looked perfect," she said. "They were doing it on a rent to own basis, so we would be able to get started owning our own home in that process."
The price was the best part. "It was $800 a month," she said, "utilities included and everything."
Tours the House, falls in Love
She called the owner listed in the ad, who told her the house was vacant and available to tour.
He gave her the code to the realtor lock box on the door, so she would be able to get inside.
So she went through it with her father and fiance, taking photos of all the rooms, and then called the owner to say she wanted to make a deposit immediately.
Unfortunately, she says, he happened to be out of town.
"He said he was a pastor. He said he was doing missionary work," she said.
Wires Deposit, Money Vanishes
So he told her to wire him a deposit via Western Union to a Walmart in Texas, where he was working
But Greer says as soon as she sent the $300 deposit, the man disappeared.
No returned calls. No returned texts. The ad disappeared too.
It turns out she had fallen victim to a hijacked real estate listing, a scam most common on Craigslist, but also showing up on other real estate sites like Zillow.
The house was real, it was even vacant and for rent. But the ad Greer responded to was not. It was a copy of the original ad listing
The home was actually for rent by a real estate company, for $1,200 dollars a month (plus utilities), not $800 with utilities included.
The rental company said it had nothing to do with the version of the ad she responded to.
Greer and her fiance are out the money.
"We're getting married. That's $300 towards my wedding," she said. "I work hard for my money. I do the right things in life."
We contacted Zillow, which promised to investigate Greer's case.
A spokeswoman, however, pointed out that every rental listing on the site has a scam warning on the top of the page, telling you to never wire money as a deposit to a "landlord" you have never met.
Strange Case of the Lockbox code
What about the lockbox code?
Police say this is the newest thing scammers are doing: they email the real owner of the home for rent, pretending to be interested in renting it.
They then ask the owner for the code to get in, but never use it: instead they give the code to potential victims, who then assume the scammer is really the owner.
To protect yourself from a rental scam.
- Be suspicious of all landlords who say they are out of town.
- Never wire money to a landlord you have never met personally.
- Be wary of a home or apartment where the rent appears to be ridiculously low.
Finally, consider working with a licensed, professional Realtor. They will make sure you only look at legitimate listings. And they are paid by the homeowner, not by you.
That way you don't waste your money.
Don't Waste Your Money is a registered trademark of the EW Scripps Co.