Roanoke woman loses $900 in rental scam, learns lesson she wants to share

ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) The Roanoke Valley real estate market is hoping to have another impressive year following 2019's historic sales numbers, but with the housing market going up, the number of real estate scams also increases.

Brandy Eltagonde told WDBJ7 the story of the scam she fell victim to last summer.

"After I gave him that $900, he said he wanted more money," she said. "I say wait a minute, you said you were going to send the keys through FedEx and I don't have it. 'Oh but we got to go through protocol.' And that was it. I stopped. I didn't want to give him anymore money."

Julie Wheeler with the Better Business Bureau said Eltagonde is one of thousands of people who come across this kind of scam.

"It's estimated that 43 percent of people that are looking for a rental will come across a fraudulent listing," Wheeler said. "Now they may not contact or whatever, but they are definitely prevalent enough that they are seeing them."

The number that actually gets reported though is much lower.

"Scam tracker, I think there's been like 18 reports in Virginia, of people who have actually fallen victim to rental scams, but there's a huge amount of people who will report it to the police department, which doesn't get into our numbers, or not report it at all and just chalk it up to experience," Wheeler explained.

Eltagonde did report it to the BBB and the police, but this kind of criminal is rarely caught.

Wheeler said one should never assume they'd never fall victim to this kind of scam.

"The initial listing could appear very legitimate, especially if they've taken an existing for sale listing then they have pictures and everything [looks] great," Wheeler said.

Copying a real listing but adding the scammer's contact information is one of the most common ways criminals get money from people looking to rent a new home.

"But where you really will see your red flags is when start negotiating." Wheeler said.

One of those big red flags is an out of town home-owner.

"They can't show you the property, that'll be a thing because maybe they're out of the country for work or out of the area," she said.

That's exactly what happened to Eltagonde.

"I am out of state right now," Eltagonde read from a series of text messages she exchanged with a man she thought was renting a house in Roanoke. "I got transferred due to my work and that's the main reason I am leasing the house."

When she realized it was a scam, she'd already lost nearly $1,000.

"I was mad. I was furious. I was mad," she said. "You know people who do scams are people who are trying to make a living, trying to better themselves. And are somebody who just takes something from, [someone] that you think you can trust."

Some other red flags are the landlord asking for a deposit in bitcoin, money grams or even gift cards, because the money lost through this kind of exchange can't be tracked or reimbursed.

"Don't ever pay with gift cards.That is not a legitimate form of payment," Wheeler said. "Period."

WDBJ7 asked Eltagonde what was the biggest lesson she learned through this experience.

"Oh, never do it again," she laughed. "Make sure I meet the person, have a walk through, make sure everything is legit, and see the person face to face instead of anything online anymore. Cause that was the first thing ... I was just too excited, that's all."

The BBB said this type of scam is becoming more prevalent and isn't just targeting long term rentals, but vacation rentals too. A 2018 study by Apartment List showed rental fraud had cost U.S. renters over $5 million.

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