In April, rents increased month-over-month in 81 percent of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan statistical markets (MSAs), and that number jumps to 89 percent when looking at year-over-year trends. When home and rental prices are all on the rise, it’s easy for buyers and renters to be lured into scams with hopes of saving a little extra change — which is exactly what happened to a Denver family just last week.
On April 9, ABC Denver 7 shared the story of Matthew and Stephanie Leschen, a couple who were on the hunt for an affordable single-family rental to move into with their two children. The couple searched Trulia, found 1360 South Tejon St. — a listing that fit their budget — and reached out to “Courtesy Grips,” the contact listed. The Leschens texted Grips and received a lockbox code to tour the house, according to the report.
“We got in the house, we looked around. We liked it, so we decided to move forward, and he asked to put two months down plus a security deposit,” Stephanie told Denver 7.
From there, Leschen filled out a rental application, signed a lease and sent a $3,400 deposit. But before the couple could get the keys to their new home, Grips told them he was in route to New York so his son could receive cancer treatment at a hospital there. Grips told Leschen he’d send her the keys — but she’d have to send an additional $500 to cover delivery costs.
Before sending the $500, Leschen did some additional digging and found out Grips had copied a legitimate listing from Invitation Homes and advertised it on Trulia. She then reached out to Denver 7’s investigation team to get answers.
“It’s totally gone … and it’s just scary,” Leschen said of their money in a video interview.
In an emailed statement to Inman, Trulia said it is aware of the incident and has pulled down the listing.
“Trulia goes to great lengths to police activity and fully inform our users of the existence of scams and how to protect themselves. Our customer support team monitors activity on the site in a number of different ways, and if a rental listing is found to be fraudulent, it is immediately removed from Trulia,” said a Zillow Group spokesperson.
“Trulia has a page on our Learning Center to help educate prospective renters on how to spot a rental scam. Some of the red flags to look out for include requests for wire transfers and long-distance inquiries, never meeting the landlord in person, and emails that are filled with grammatical mistakes and misspellings.”
Although Trulia has a team who monitors listings, the company says it partially relies on Trulia users to alert it if something is amiss. On rental listings posted by an individual, there is a “report this listing” button users can click.
From there, they’re able to choose a reason why they’re reporting the listing and provide more details. After that, Trulia will begin an investigation and delete the listing if needed.
It’s still unknown how Grips obtained a valid lockbox code from Invitation Homes, the company who rightfully owns the listing, but Denver-based Re/Max agent Anthony Rael told Denver 7 Grips could have broken the lockbox or posed as an interested renter and stole the code from the agent’s paperwork.
In the wider real estate community, lockboxes have sparked debate mainly because of security concerns. In May 2017, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) addressed this issue by updating MLS Policy Statement 7.31 to help protect against cyber attacks and code misuse. One of the approved measures says codes must expire within seventy-two hours of being issued:
As a matter of local discretion, the listing broker or agent can issue temporary codes to access the lockbox and property on terms and conditions agreed to in advance by the seller. Temporary codes/access must expire within seventy-two (72) hours after being issued or must be under the control of the listing broker or agent. Temporary codes must be a minimum field size of five (5) characters. (XX,XXX)
NAR also approved a measure that allows “individual’s criminal history” to be considered when deciding to provide a lockbox code.
In an emailed statement to Inman, Invitation Homes said it posted a “scam alert” sign at the home and is working with the Denver Police Department as the investigation continues.
The company said it is not able to comment on how Grips got the lockbox code, nor is it able to talk about the company lockbox policy due to “security reasons.”
“Invitation Homes has security measures in place to help protect consumers and, fortunately, the number of misleading listings is very small,” said Invitation Homes media representative Claire Parker. “We encourage any consumer interested in renting one of our homes to contact us directly via our website at InvitationHomes.com.”
“With regard to the home on Tejon St., Invitation Homes had two “scam alert” signs posted in the home, which prevented individuals from becoming casualties of fraud. We are working with the police in this matter.”
Rael said potential renters are missing major red flags because of their eagerness to get into a home. The solution, he said, is to do a better job with their due diligence, and make sure to ask many questions.
In the meantime, the Leschens have started a GoFundMe to recoup some of the $3,900 they lost, and they’re still on the search for a new home.