PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - Full sized sparkling pool, built-in jacuzzi, lush gardens and a renovated kitchen!
Sounds like a beautiful way to vacation in Palm Springs. But imagine getting to your destination and finding out your dream vacation home is not being rented, already rented, or the address does not exist.
"The vacationer shows up and finds out it's not actually a house that was for rent and they're stuck trying to find a hotel for their stay," explains Palm Springs Police Detective Marcus Litch.
Palm Springs police have tracked at least 15 cases in the last eight months, and in each case, victims lost between $1,000 and $5,000.
"It's something that's going rampant right now because it's so easy for the suspects to create a fake profile and get that money from unsuspecting victims," says Litch.
Con artists use sites like Craigslist and even VRBO to post fake rentals using real properties. The websites themselves take little or no responsibility, stating that it's a risk of doing business on the internet.
"The suspect is using their own information that they're creating using a phone number burner application, or Google Voice. They can create a fake phone number and put it on the ad," says Litch.
Litch says there are red flags to watch for.
- Check the spelling and language in the ad ("The people who are doing the ad, their English isn't very good. It just doesn't make sense.")
- Listen for an accent when you call the number ("It sounds like they speak a foreign language.")
- Prices are usually lower, or the same as the actual asking rate
When looking into a rental:
- Call the local police department, or check Google Maps to make sure the address actually exists.
- Be nervous if the "renter" asks for money up front, before any contract is signed.
- Always ask for a walk-through even if you don't plan on doing one.
"Most renters are pretty agreeable to that," says Litch, "whereas in our experience in these cases, the suspect will pretty much cut off all contact at that point."
And if you are a property owner, check the Internet periodically for your ad elsewhere.
"(The owner) can check the Internet periodically, make sure their house isn't showing up on Craigslist or somewhere else like that, or make sure that the ads that they do have out there are the ones that they approved through the company they're renting their house through," explains Litch.
Litch says it's possible this problem will escalate during "festival" season.
"We would just encourage everyone who is going to be renting houses to do that extra bit of due diligence to follow up and make sure that they are getting a correct rental and they are not getting a fraudulent one."
Litch tells us the cases are very difficult to prosecute because the suspects are using another victim's bank account, and sometimes the money trail goes all the way to remote locations like Cameroon.
"The suspect is using another person's bank account to basically launder the money through. They set up that person by doing another scam. By basically calling them and telling them you've won the lottery, we need your bank account, we're going to send you some money. That person, who's unsuspecting, is waiting for their lottery winning to come back, and it never comes back."
The con artist essentially walks away from person number one (the vacationer), and person number two (the bank account holder).
In working these cases, Litch says he's worked with police officers from Florida, Texas, Michigan and Indiana.
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