“There are criminals who sit and wait around for a crisis to jump in,” real estate safety expert Tracey Hawkins told Inman.

With the pandemic pushing the industry toward self-showings, renters and property managers could be at an increased risk of falling prey to online scammers.

Tracey Hawkins, a real estate safety expert and founder of Safety and Security Source, is warning managers of a new type of fraud specific to rental properties and self-showings — scammers seeking out properties that are available to rent, receive a code to enter the house for an online showing, and then advertising the property online as their own. They will then give the potential tenant the code to do a tour and, after they express interest, collect money on a property that is not theirs.

Tracey Hawkins

“Not only is the scammer taking advantage of the landlord but they can now steal the identity of this tenant and their money,” Hawkins, who leads a series of virtual programs about how agents and managers can stay safe during the COVID-19 outbreak, told Inman. “It breaks my heart because when people lose their money this way, they’re not getting it back.”

Different rental companies will, Hawkins said, have different security systems. Some large-scale ones like Rently require a user who is interested in touring a property to upload a government-issued ID and a selfie while others use artificial intelligence to match the person booking the tour with the person entering the house. Many also have a timer on the code and make it possible to enter the home only during a very narrow time frame.

That said, smaller property managements who have only transitioned to using lockboxes and self-tours amid the pandemic may be particularly at risk for this type of fraud. Oftentimes, the owner will only find out that a scam has occurred with their property when somebody calls and asks why they paid the money and are not able to move in. While tenants need to do their diligence and read up on companies that they’re working with, property managers have a big role to play in making sure these situations do not arise — Hawkins has heard of multiple apartments or even entire buildings being listed illegally without the owner’s or manager’s knowledge.

“The tenant and the property manager both have to be on their toes,” Hawkins said. “It takes both parties working together to prevent the scammers from being successful because if the owners like their guards downs then their properties can be targeted and listed illegally.”

Stopping this type of fraud has also become more difficult — while you could once spot fraudulent listings easily by typos and sloppily-done posts, scammers have gotten more adept at putting up listings that mirror the real ones one sees on genuine rental companies. Hawkins advises property managers and owners set a Google alert for the address of every unit that they are trying to rent. That way, they will get an email notification every time that address is published somewhere else on the internet. If the property is a house, another strategy can be to put up a sign in the window saying that it is up for sale or rent and listing the landlord’s contact information. That will help alert the client that they might have been interacting with a different person.

The most important thing is, according to Hawkins, to stay vigilant and due one’s due diligence on every property. The current health crisis has pushed many people into wanting to move quickly and with minimal interaction with the other side. But as Hawkins warns, skipping steps in the verification process can expose one to complicated fraud schemes that are very difficult to undo later.

“There are criminals who sit and wait around for a crisis to jump in,” Hawkins said. “I’m hoping that the companies have a good enough security system in place to prevent them from getting through.”

Email Veronika Bondarenko

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