‘Complete disaster’: New scam preys on people desperate to find housing

OAKESDALE, Wash. — Scammers are targeting people on the hunt for housing. They aren’t going away, and their tactics are trapping people desperate to find housing they can trust.

“It has been almost a complete disaster,” said Autumn Clarke. She’s a housing scam victim who’s been looking for stable housing for over two years. She lives about an hour away from Spokane in Oakesdale because the market is so competitive, and she’s been scammed frequently.

“You go on Craigslist, every few posts is a scam, you go on Marketplace — similar situation. It’s almost a 50/50,” she said.

She scours these sites and still comes up empty handed because the options aren’t real, and scammers are ruthless.

“I think it’s awful especially with the housing crisis we’re having here in Seattle and Spokane and the homeless rates, I think it’s just absurd to be honest. It shouldn’t be happening,” Clarke exclaimed.

She reports the scams to Facebook, but not much changes. A local realtor, Marianne Bornhoft, says Facebook can’t monitor everything, and the scammers aren’t backing down.

“Now that Facebook is an option for scammers, we’re seeing a new kind of scam happening,” Bornhoft said.

Vacant or properties currently on the market are gold in the scamming business.

“Typically, scammers are targeting vacant properties because they’ll go to the extreme saying go up on the front porch, look in the windows, go in the back door, walk around the house,” Bornhoft explained. “If you get inside, if you want to rent it — send me the information and your money right now, and I’ll rent it to you.”

These are red flags you should look out for to avoid becoming a victim:

1. If the rental price is a lot lower than the market price.
2. The photos look too nice. They’re probably stolen or stock images.
3. The landlord says they’re out of the country.
4. They only want to conduct business online.

Clarke says she thankfully hasn’t lost money to one of these scams, but she has lost a lot of time.

“You’re stuck looking again, and it’s just frustrating,” Clarke said.

She’s frustrated with the state of housing in the Inland Northwest. Scams are making things worse, but she’s sticking to her search.

“I know if I keep trying, eventually I have to be able to find something. At least, that’s my hope anyway,” Clarke said.

These scams may seem like they’re only tied to housing, but they’re not. Bornhoft says scammers are looking to hack into your personal life and the worst case scenario would be having your identity stolen. What could start with a rental property can turn into lost money and privacy that’s extremely hard to recover.

READ: Sen. Cantwell urges Congress to return money to consumers victimized by scams

READ: How to avoid Zelle scams — and what to do if you can’t