Fake landlords are costing Americans a pretty penny, and Detroiters falling victim to these vicious housing rental scams are paying up, too.
According to national data, about 5.2 million U.S. renters have lost money due to rental scams, Forbes reported – and that’s just the start.
Locally one in 10 Detroiters dealing with an eviction are more than likely to be victimized by this insidious crime that the city, and vulnerable residents, especially Black residents, have dealt with for 10 years.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, and others, are not sitting idly by.
Nessel recently reissued consumer alerts related to housing scams following a local investigation and reported instances of scammers looking for monetary gain taking advantage of unsuspecting Detroit residents.
An NBC News and Outlier Media report noted that in some cases, “people who have lost their house to foreclosure have kept collecting rent from tenants without letting on that they’re no longer the landlord. In others, con artists have broken into vacant houses, changed the locks, listed them for sale or rent, then collected payments from victims. Some fake sellers have even filed false deeds to make fake sales look legitimate, lawyers and experts say.”
“I was appalled and saddened to read the hardship these victims are facing at the hands of scam artists who target tenants,” Nessel said. “The best way to prevent a scam from happening is to know the red flags to look for, so you can spot them before a bad actor tries to take advantage of you or someone you know. It’s also important to remember my team is ready to investigate consumer complaints. We just need help from the public in reporting suspected scams.”
In response, Nessel is reissuing two consumer alerts that are among her library of resources consumers can review any time that cover a variety of issues.
The AG’s Home Lending and Foreclosure Rescue Scams Consumer Alert highlights ways scam artists have targeted consumers in danger of losing their homes or homeowners who have equity in their homes but not cash. The elderly and those with low incomes or poor credit are particularly vulnerable.
Here are tips to protect one’s home from landlord scams:
When reviewing mortgage choices, consider a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insured mortgage.
If you do not get straight answers from a prospective lender or feel uneasy about the arrangement, seek a loan from a different lender.
Be sure your loan agent is employed by a lender that is a licensee or registrant and therefore authorized to sell mortgages in Michigan. To find out if a lender is authorized to sell mortgages in Michigan, contact the Department of Insurance and Financial Services (DIFS) Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 877-999-6442. You may also search for licensees on the DIFS website.
Read and understand everything you sign.
Obtain copies of everything you sign.
Never sign a blank document.
Don’t sign a power of attorney without discussing it with somebody you know and trust.
Get all promises, as you understand them, in writing.
Fraudulent rental listings primarily happen in two ways:
Hijacked Ads – Some scammers may copy a listing from a legitimate real estate listing and place it on a different website. It all looks legitimate, but in reality, the bad actor is promoting a property they’re not affiliated with.
Phantom Rentals – Other scammers may make up a listing to cheat an unsuspecting renter out of money. These will often offer to rent the property for cheaper than other listings in the area.
Rental red flags:
You’re asked to wire money.
You’re asked to provide a security deposit or first month’s rent before touring or signing a lease.
You find the listing under different names.
You learn the landlord is out of town.
“Never pay for a rental property without seeing it in person and meeting with the landlord,” Nessel said. “You should also search the listing online to ensure it wasn’t copied fraudulently. Do your homework and trust your instincts if something feels off about a listing — even if it offers big savings in your rent payment.”
The NBC News report highlighted Detroit resident June Walker, 65, who in 2019 moved into what she thought was her $15,000 home and later learned that her east side brick bungalow was not hers in the first place when she received an eviction letter. According to the story, Walker and her lawyers strongly believe that she is the latest landlord scam victim.
“This happens all the time and it’s going to happen more because there’s blood in the water,” said attorney Justin Smith in the article. “People are going to have to move … and you might see scammers that view this as a very fertile ground for continuing their methods.”
Ted Phillips, executive director of the United Community Housing Coalition, told the Michigan Chronicle that targeted residents include low-income Detroiters with poor credit and potential background issues.
“We are one of the agencies that handles eviction cases in 36th District Court,” Phillips said, adding that his non-profit organization work includes helping homeowners “stay homeowners.”
“In the course of that very often I have [run] into people who have had either a scam where they rented property where the person didn’t own it or even worse purchased property [and it] turned out the persons selling to them didn’t own.”
Phillips said that before COVID-19 in Detroit, about 31,000 cases a year were filed at 36th District Court.
Phillips said that there are, unfortunately, not a lot of penalties for these types of scams.
“[There] doesn’t seem to be a lot of follow up on it,” Phillips said. “I fully recognize it’s very difficult for law enforcement to catch folks like this.”
Consumer complaints can be filed online at the Attorney General’s website at https://www.michigan.gov/ or by calling 877-765-8388.