Police warn of scam targeting renters

GREENFIELD — Claudia Hudson admitted the advertisement seemed too good to be true.

An Avon resident looking to move back to her hometown in Hancock County, she spotted the ad and was immediately intrigued: a 1,400-square-foot one-story house nestled in the center of Greenfield; three bedrooms, two baths and just $700 rent a month.

It was too perfect, Hudson thought. And after exchanging a few text messages with the man who claimed to be the home’s owner that sent up more red flags in her mind, Hudson contacted police, who confirmed her suspicions.

Investigators said the ad was likely a scam aimed at swiping money and personal information from would-be renters — a crime local police worry could happen more often as Hancock County’s housing market grows, and property-owners place ads across a number of platforms where scammers could troll for information.

Now, the Greenfield Police Department has launched an investigation and is warning others looking for rental properties to be wary.

Hudson isn’t the only potential renter who has contacted police with concerns about scams at rental properties, especially those advertised online with little information about the landlord. Greenfield Police Department officers have investigated at least five such cases in the past two years, and they fear the crime will become more prevalent as the city grows.

The home Hudson was interested in, located in the 1400 block of East McClarnon Drive, is owned by a California-based company called American Homes 4 Rent, which is currently seeking a tenant for the property, said Greenfield Police Department Detective Lt. Randy Ratliff.

The scammer who created the ad Hudson answered likely pulled details about the property off the American Homes 4 Rent website but replaced the contact information with their own, Ratliff said.

Hudson said she’d been looking for a rental property in Greenfield so she could be closer to her daughter and three grandchildren. The home on East McClarnon Drive seemed to be the perfect spot for her, and it was listed at a perfect price, she said.

When Hudson sent a text message to the advertiser for more information about the property, a man who claimed to be the owner answered, saying he needed Hudson to wire him $50 along with an application listing her full name, current address and telephone number.

Originally, the man didn’t ask Hudson for her social security number, but he did say he’d need additional information from her if she’d like to rent the home, she said.

But the man told Hudson he couldn’t meet her at the property because he was out of state visiting a sick relative. He promised to send along the code to a lock box hanging on the door.

That’s when things seemed too fishy to Hudson, and she stopped contacting the man and called police instead. She said she never ended up sending the man money but is more worried about what personal information he might have gained had the conversation gone on longer.

Officials suggest using only accredited companies when looking for a rental home. Be wary if the listing agent says they can’t meet for a tour of the property or if they ask for money or personal information before a tour can take place, police said.

Representatives of American Homes 4 Rent did not return calls for comment.

Anyone with information about the case, or who believes they’ve been a victim, can contact the Greenfield Police Department at 317-447-4410.

Have you been a victim?

If you suspect you’ve been the victim of a rental property scam, contact the Greenfield Police Department at 317-477-4410.

Renting responsibly

The Better Business Bureau offers the following safety tips for renters:

  • Watch for glaring spelling or grammatical errors in an advertisements. These could indicate someone other than a professional placed the ad.
  • Don’t wire money or use a pre-paid debit card to secure a deposit on a rental property, as these methods of payment are difficult to trace.
  • Watch for deals that are too good to be true. Scammers lure targets by promising low rents, extra amenities and other perks that don’t allow with the housing market for the area.
  • Run a search online for the advertisement text; if similar ads with matching addresses pop up in various cities, consider that a red flag.
  • Make sure to meet the landlord or realtor in person. Scammers often claim to be traveling and refuse to communicate except through electronic means.
Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.