On an unassuming street in the Heights, homeowner Katie Pearson got an unexpected visitor.
"The doorbell rang and there’s a smiling couple standing there and they said, “Hi, we’ve been texting with the owner of this house for the last two weeks about maybe renting it and she told us to just come by and look in the windows and if we liked it to let her know."
But in reality it wasn’t Pearson texting them, nor was the house available for rent. Three days after she’d listed it for lease, she’d signed a contract with her tenants that were due to move in in the coming days.
"I said, 'Well, I think you’re being scammed by someone.'"
She was right. A network of scammers had taken Pearson’s listing from the Houston Association of Realtor’s website, and reposted it for less money on other real estate websites like Zillow, Truila and Hotpads. They’d even gone to the bother of finding out Pearson’s name and constructed an email address around it.
This is not surprising says Monica Russo with the Better Business Bureau.
"The renter scams been around for several years, so this isn’t the first time we’ve seen it."
But why do they do it?
"What happens in these cases is that anyone who responds to these online ads through sites like Craigslist, for example, will be instructed to wire money over to somebody by money order, and so once that’s done the money is untraceable and it’s virtually impossible to get back."
In Pearson’s case the so-called “owner” of her home was supposedly on a mission in Washington DC. Often Russo says the reality is the scammers are based abroad. Luckily no one had paid money to these scammers, but Pearson felt violated by the whole experience. To make sure it didn’t happen to anyone else, she reported it to the Federal Trade Commission.
"They said, 'We don’t do anything we just keep statistics.' So my husband said, 'Should we call the police,' and they said, 'No, no you’ve done all you’re supposed to do.'"
So there’s nothing else Pearson could do? Monica Russo says not really.
"I don’t know if there was really much she could do to have protected herself from being victimized like this, because all of this information is freely available on the web."
Once bitten, twice shy Pearson won’t fall into the same trap again.
"What I would do next time is I would go onto those websites: Zillow and Trulia and Hotpads. They call it something different on each site, but you can claim your house basically, and you put your own information in and you have control of the listing of that property."
Next time Pearson also intends to leave the realtor’s sign out front until the new tenant moves in. So when people drive past, they see the real details of the rental, exposing the fake ones on other websites. She hopes this will go a little way to cover her and other Houstonians who may get caught by this scam.