Real Estate And Rental Scams Are Getting More Complex

( — While the focus has remained largely on squatters who take over rental property or vacant homes and refuse to leave, little attention has been given to online scammers who rent out properties they do not own.

Scammers are using online rental sites like Zillow to lease properties to unsuspecting renters who make payments online using payment services like Venmo without realizing that the “landlord” doesn’t even own the property.

Lisa Jones of Knoxville, Tennessee, was moving to Milwaukee and rented a property online from someone named Paul Schwartz. It wasn’t until after she transferred the $600 security deposit and moved to the Wisconsin city that Jones realized that Paul Schwartz did not own the property she purportedly rented.

Jones told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she had no place to stay and had been living there for more than a month.

However, Jones is not the only victim of the so-called Paul Schwartz. A review of police reports and messages on Reddit uncovered at least half a dozen other people who were scammed in the same way by someone claiming to be a landlord named Paul Schultz, including people in Nevada, Florida, and Washington, DC.

The renters from Florida and Nevada reported the scam to the police but as yet, investigators have not tracked down the person posing as Paul Schwartz. The real Paul Schwartz, whose driver’s license was used to “verify” the landlord’s identity online, is real, but Paul Schwartz has nothing to do with the scam.

The phony landlord has been running this scam since at least 2019. In each case, the victim was scammed out of hundreds of dollars in security deposits and the first month’s rent, paid through online payment services

According to a 2022 FBI Internet crime report, nearly 12,000 people reported being victims of rental fraud or real estate investment scams, with a total of nearly $400 million being stolen in that year alone.

In late March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a new law to address such rental scams. In addition to granting law enforcement the authority to remove squatters from properties, the new law, HB621, makes it a first-degree felony for someone to rent or sell properties they do not own.

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