How you can avoid online rental scams

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- As we continue to bring to you the story of the family who was scammed out of $10,000 by a fake landlord, viewer response has been overwhelming. We have some great questions and advice coming in to our Facebook page about this fraud. We will start with a question that comes in every time report a scam like this...

EXCLUSIVE: South San Francisco family forced to live in van after being duped by fake landlord back indoors

This time it is Mel asking: "How do people still fall for this... It's always on the news."

Good question. The answer? Mel, they fall for it because renters are desperate for a place to live here in the Bay Area and the scammers are good at their job.

In another post, Grace backs me up on this, "I came close to being involved in a scam like this. The property was a listed on Zillow." In that instance, a legit platform makes the scam look legit.

Gloria wrote: "That happened to my daughter, and she lives in Florida." See -- the problem is widespread.

RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: South San Francisco family lives in van after losing $10,000 to fake landlord

"Social media scams are proliferating, they include rental scams and a number of other financial crimes," say Consumer Action's Joe Ridout, "The bottom line is that you can't really trust anything you see online unless you can back it up with somebody in person, verifying the details."

Michele was on the other end of this scam, as a property owner, "I had my rental ad used by someone trying the same thing. Beware of any ad asking for wired $, meet the owner or owners agent. Ask for proof!"

Potential renters looking online for properties should be on the lookout for red flags such as...
  • The landlord is out of town

  • The price is too low

  • You must pay in cash or wire the money

Fortunately, there are steps renters can take to protect themselves, including...
  • Look up the property owner's name on the website and check their I.D.

  • Never wire money

  • Don't pay with cash

Do pay by check (It doesn't offer much protection, but at least it can be 'stopped' if a problem comes to light quick enough).

San Mateo District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe says checking on a landlord is not easy in the state of California.

"It is hard because when we're dealing with landlords, they're not regulated with the state of California, that's different. If you're contractors, cosmetologists, all sorts of other people are regulated," he says. "There's checks you can do online. Doesn't exist in the state of California."

And if you do get taken by these con men, report the crime to local authorities immediately.

"The key is very quickly after you realize that you have been defrauded is to call your local police department or your local DA's office," say Wagstaffe, "I have, and almost very DA's office has, a real estate fraud unit that looks into these very things, but the key would be to move with speed and not sit there wondering what to do next."

If you have dealt entirely online, there is likely not much the authorities can do to track the thieves down, so keep that in mind.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

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