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Scam artists using online trickery to prey on renters

Lashawndra Malonson thought she was getting a great deal. But it turned out to be a brazen attempt to steal her money.

HOUSTON — Everything looked good when Lashawndra Malonson checked the listing online -- a remodeled three-bedroom, two-bathroom home in Humble was renting for the bargain price of $1,000 a month.

“I look at the photos, you know, it looks nice,” Malonson said. “All the bells and whistles that I love.”

Malonson said she called to view the property and the man on the other end of the line told her how to sign up online for the code to the lockbox to do a self-tour. After visiting the property in person, she was sold.

“And I was, like, 'OK! I love the property, what do I do next?'” she said.

Text messages reveal what happened next was a brazen attempt to steal her money. The texts instructed her how to send cash, first at a nearby bitcoin machine, and later with an Apple card.

“'Go to Walmart now so you can get this done,'” one text message read. “'I want to draft out your lease contract once your payment has been made.'”

Malonson said the man pressured her to act fast or he would rent the property to somebody else.

“'Hurry, hurry, hurry,'” she said. “Everything is ‘are you done yet? Are you there yet?'"

Malonson said she quickly realized it was a scam but played along for a while. When she tried to meet him in person, he made multiple excuses including that his wife just gave birth and he was unable to leave the hospital.

“I am a paralegal and I do have the knowledge, you know, when someone is taking advantage of me,” she said.

As it turns out, the online listing and photos were practically cut-and-pasted from the one posted by the real property owner, FirstKey Homes. In that listing, the property was renting for $1,565 a month, much more than the $1,000 Malonson originally viewed.

“We’re so happy to hear that Ms. Malonson wisely avoided this illegal rental scam activity,” FirstKey Homes spokesperson Michael Torres said. "It’s disheartening to know some dishonest people take information from legitimate rental listings and use it to defraud unsuspecting consumers.”

It’s not the only case making the rounds in the Houston-area rental property market.

“This same thing has happened to me on some of my lease listings,” Jennifer Wauhob, chair-elect of the Houston Association of Realtors, said.

Wauhob said scam-artists used Facebook marketplace to prey on vulnerable consumers.

“People were taking lease listings that I had listed, listing them at a lower price and posting them on Facebook,” she said. “And unfortunately, some people are sending these people security deposits and first month's rent and unfortunately, they're getting scammed.”

Wauhob said self-touring rental properties shouldn’t necessarily be a red flag, as legitimate companies utilize the option, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. But she recommends always confirming a listing agent’s credentials online with the Texas Real Estate Commission or Houston Association of Realtors. She also said renters should be suspicious anytime someone asks for large amounts of money upfront.

As for who Malonson dealt with, the man only went by “Juicer” and never gave her his last name. She fears others may fall victim to his scam.

“Be cautious when you’re going out to these properties to look at homes because at the end of the day, it could be legitimate and it could not,” she said.

The website where the listing was originally posted conducted an investigation and removed it from the site. A spokesperson said it uses a mix of third-party and proprietary algorithms and fraud detection systems to block offenders from posting illegitimate content.

“We are constantly improving our security mechanisms and tools, but can’t guarantee that some fraudulent content won’t get through,” the spokesperson said.

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