NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - The housing market is crazy these days. Prices are sky-high, and when renters find something affordable, they may find out that it's not actually available.
Criminals know that people are desperate for a home, and they're using that to their advantage. Rachel Havard and her family almost fell victim recently as they were searching for a new home in Newport News.
"Things have been going super fast, so you'd see things one day and the next day, they're already gone," she said.
This was becoming all to common for the Havards until a glimmer of hope came from a recent Zillow listing.
"We had contacted the person through Zillow and they had sent us an email. [In response, he sent us] this super detailed email of why they had bought the house and how come they weren't giving the listing to just anyone. They [said they] were missionaries for UNICEF, which is an organization we've supported ourselves in the past. We're like, 'Oh, this is awesome! This is really what we've been asking for; like, what we've been praying for,'" Rachel said.
That seems pretty great, right? Well, not exactly.
Rachel said after the initial conversation via email, they provided the alleged seller with basic information - though that didn't include any mention of a salary or money. Rachel said they were "accepted" right away.
"The first thing he asked was, 'Are you OK giving the deposit in Bitcoin?' And we were like, 'Ohhhhh,'" Rachel said.
According to Rachel, they hadn't even toured the rental home and were being pressured to give a deposit and the first month's rent, which tallied up to about $3,000.
"And the more we talked to him about it, the pushier he got, and the more he kept saying, 'Well, just pay it in PayPal to my assistant' at this, like, unprofessional, random email address he gave us," Rachel said.
Rachel said she reached out to her Realtor, who then reached out to the seller's agent. After some digging, they said they confirmed the listing wasn't legitimate and had been taken off Zillow's website.
Looking back, Rachel said there were red flags:
- The alleged seller was out of town and couldn't meet to tour the home.
- They included what appeared to be a very personal story to play on her and her husband's emotions.
- There were several spelling errors in emails and text messages.
- They, almost, immediately asked for a Bitcoin wire.
Zillow also confirms that these are signs of trouble. On the company's website, they caution consumers to "always be wary of giving personal information, financial information, or payments of any kind to people you don’t know personally," adding, "if you find a fraudulent listing on Zillow, please report it by clicking 'Report Listing' and selecting 'Listing seems to be fraudulent or illegal' on the listing page in question."
Luckily the Havards didn't send any money, but Rachel's advice is, "If something feels weird, I say go ahead and flag it and let them know because they can do the kind of harder work of looking into it."
Rachel said her Realtor believes the "seller's" identity was stolen from tax records because they are open to the public. Below you can find the email that Rachel was sent:
"Thanks for your email response. My house is still available for rent and the rent includes utilities Electricity, heat, laundry facilities, Air condition, Internet and phone line. And I also want you to know that it was due to my work transfer that made me and my wife leave the house with an intention of giving it out for rent. We are looking for a responsible person that can take very good care of it as we are not after the money for the rent but want the property to be kept clean all the time as it is our hard-earned property. If you are honestly interested and will absolutely maintain my property (Taking care of it like yours) as I hope I can put my trust and confidence in you.. Long and short lease available.Presently, We are here in Tennessee doing the UNICEF program (The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund) for through our direct service to mankind, the blessings and promises of God will manifest today. The house's vital informative documents and the entrance keys to my house are with us, we tried to look for a dependable agent to handle the rent but could not find one due to the limited time we had before leaving the state. Mostly we do not want our property to be given to any sort of person to avoid damages and troubles. My wife and I came over to Tennessee for missionary work, So we hope you will be a good tenant which we've been praying to get.
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