Buyer Beware: Internet Real Estate Scams

February 18, 2010
By admin

HARRISBURG, PA – Attorney General Tom Corbett today cautioned Pennsylvania consumers to be alert for possible scams linked to online ads for rental homes and apartments, along with Internet “for sale” ads and auctions for real estate, cars, motorcycles and other items.

“Internet classified ads and auction websites are popular tools for bargain-hunters searching for low prices and good deals,” Corbett said. “Listing items for sale or purchase is quick, easy and relatively inexpensive – but unfortunately, scam artists have found it equally easy to use this technology to prey on consumers.”

Corbett noted that there are many different types of online scams, but most share common themes which can make them easier to identify.

“Scam artists are really only interested in two things – getting you to respond quickly and convincing you to send them money,” Corbett said. “Everything they say or do is going to be focused on getting their hands on your money as quickly as possible.”

Corbett said that these bogus ads often use extremely low prices and sympathetic stories to encourage consumers to respond quickly and to reduce suspicion.

“A fraudulent seller might claim that they need to rent their home or sell their vehicle quickly because they have lost their job, are relocating, have been activated by the military or are doing missionary work overseas,” Corbett said. “This ‘cover story’ actually serves two purposes – gaining the trust or sympathy of potential buyers and justifying why the deal must be handled by long-distance.”

Corbett explained that scam ads will typically ask consumers to wire-transfer money, either as a deposit/rent for a home or apartment or as payment for a vehicle – claiming that keys will be sent or the car can be picked up after the money has been sent. He added that wire transfers are the preferred way of handling payments in these scams because the money is transferred instantly and the criminals can collect it anywhere in the world.

Corbett cautioned consumers that scam ads may include photos and other details about the home or vehicle being offered.

“Criminals can easily copy the listings from legitimate websites, including pictures, detailed descriptions and even specific information like vehicle ID numbers – all as part of their quest to make the offer appear legitimate,” Corbett said. “Still, there are typically some ‘red flags’ or warning signs that can help identify bogus ads.”

Corbett urged consumers to be extremely cautious about transactions that include any of the following situations:
- The seller claims to be in another city, or another country, making any face-to-face meeting impossible.
- The item cannot be inspected in-person (Someone else is currently living in the home; the car is stored at another location, etc.)
- Consumers must quickly wire-transfer money.
- The price, availability or other details of the transaction constantly change.
- The grammar or wording of email messages from the seller do not match the original ads, leading you to believe that you are dealing with multiple people.

Corbett encouraged consumers to do some additional research if they are tempted by an online ad:
- Search the Internet for similar seller names or item descriptions (often, scam artists will place identical ads on numerous websites or in many different regions of the country).
- If the seller claims to work for a real estate agency or other business, contact that company directly to verify the accuracy of the listing.

Additionally, Corbett recommended that consumers consider their personal safety in situations where they are asked to bring cash to a meeting with a potential “seller.”

“There have been reports across the country of buyers being robbed when they arrive at meeting locations, expecting to pick up a television, computer or other item listed in an online ad,” Corbett said.

Consumers should consider the following safety tips:
- Arrange to meet in a public place – preferably a location and time when there will be many other people present.
- Tell others where you are going, who you will be meeting and when you expect to return.
- If you do not feel comfortable being alone, ask a friend, family member or coworker to join you.
- Bring a cell phone.
- If the situation seems suspicious or potentially dangerous, move to a safe location as quickly as possible.

“The best way to protect yourself is to always watch for deals or stories that seem too good to be true,” Corbett added.

Suspected scams can be reported to the national Internet Crime Complaint Center, at or by filing an online complaint with the Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection at (Click on the “Complaints” button on the front page of the website and select “Consumer Complaint Form” from the menu that appears).

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