Family warns against real estate scams after nearly falling victim to one

HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — A family in the Valley is warning others about real estate and rental scams after almost losing money to one in the area.

The scammer asked the family to send one month's rent and a deposit to a bank account.

The prospective renters who want to stay anonymous said they found a beautiful five-bedroom home on Craigslist. The person renting it said it had been for sale, but they had to move out of the area before selling it and they decided to rent it instead.

"The person said because they were now living out-of-state and didn't want to hire a third party, they wouldn't be able to do a walkthrough of the house, but we could go to the address and peek in the windows or see the 'old' for sale listings pictures," said the prospective renter.

Kemper Funkhouser, the chief operating officer at Funkhouser Real Estate Group, said not being able to see the inside of a home is a red flag.

"Any renter needs to have the opportunity to walk through the house, to meet the owner face-to-face unless they're working with a real estate professional," said Funkhouser.

The prospective renter filled out applications, but no personal information, like a social security number, was shared. She and her husband were told to send the first month's rent, plus a deposit, to a bank account number. Her husband set up money to do a wire transfer.

That afternoon, her best friend, who was researching the house, realized that it was a scam. The friend realized it was under Funkhouser and she called them to see if the owner was renting or selling. They told her the home was for sale and that the owner was local. Funkhouser confirmed it was, in fact, a scam.

"My heart stopped when I got that phone call. I couldn't believe someone would try to do this to a family with an infant," said the prospective renter.

Funkhouser said the best way to prevent this is by checking the legitimacy of any offer you see on a site like Craigslist with a realtor.

"The most important thing they can do is contact a realtor. A realtor can protect their interest and, most importantly, their pocketbook," said Funkhouser.

The prospective renter contacted the police, but since they did not lose any money, the authorities cannot do anything about it.

"There were so many warning signs I saw, but I didn't pay attention because this scammer seemed to have legitimate reasons," said the prospective renter.

She said she was devastated when she realized they would not be able to move into that home.

"I was already planning things like my daughter's first birthday to be in the house and getting her so many toys to fill up the huge bedroom she was going to have there. So it just felt like my dreams for my family were really crushed," said the prospective renter.

Funkhouser said the internet can be a jumping-off point to start a home or apartment search, but it can be dangerous in cases like this one.

"It's a great place to start to try to find the home you're wanting to buy, that you're wanting to rent, but at the end of the day you need to contact a real estate professional that can help you through the transaction and make sure you're getting the information that you need to make the best decision that you can," Funkhouser said.

The prospective renter said she and her friend figured out who the local person was who owned the house and the scammer had done research on the owner, making it seem even more legitimate.

"People really need to be vigilant. I know from now on, I'm not filling out any rental application until I can see the place in person with the owner or landlord. From now on, if I have a funny feeling, I'm going to listen to my instincts and not ignore them like I did," said the prospective renter.

Funkhouser said it is a very common scam and happening all around the country. He said it is very difficult for authorities to pinpoint a scammer, so a lot of times those who fall for it do not get their money back.