MERCED -- As some college students scramble to find housing for the upcoming school year, scammers are trying to take advantage of them.
Prospective tenants in the Merced area are unknowingly falling victim to identity theft after they contact phony property management businesses operated by con artists, the Central California Better Business Bureau reports.
An alert issued by the BBB office in Fresno this week warns consumers about legitimate rental home listings put on Craigslist with a low-ball rent. Interested parties are asked to send personal information, application fees and deposits to the fake listing agents.
Terry Ruscoe, a broker with Merced Yosemite Realty and Yosemite Property Management, said this type of scam is especially prevalent as college students and their parents are hurriedly searching for affordable rental property.
"Our rental market has become more competitive every year as (UC Merced) has grown," he said. As demand increases, he said, house hunters feel pressure to act fast to find a good deal without properly vetting companies.
Ruscoe said he first saw this type of scam about two years ago. He has even seen scammers target ads from his company in an attempt to extort personal information from people.
In the past, other scams targeted rental management companies and rental owners, but now con artists are going after consumers directly.
"Being in the business, we're very cautious," Ruscoe said, "but they're going after a more vulnerable target."
Depending on how deep the victim gets into the scam, Ruscoe said, thousands of dollars can be lost. A deposit, the first month's rent, application fees and other charges can add up fast if the potential renter falls victim to the scheme.
The loss of Social Security numbers and other sensitive personal information commonly included on rental applications can create bigger problems.
"Just like anything, people will cut corners," Ruscoe said. "But this is not an area you want to cut corners because this is your personal financial information."
Ruscoe said these scams may be happening more often than people realize.
"A lot of people don't know how to report identity theft," he said. "It's one of those things where the awareness level needs to be raised."
Lt. Tom Trindad of the Merced Police Department said anytime someone is victimized by fraud and a theft has occurred, the victim should call police so an officer can take a report and the incident can be investigated.
Trindad stressed the importance of confirming that companies are legitimate before any money is put down.
Ruscoe recommends using the Better Business Bureau website to check on property management companies and getting a confirmed link to the company's website and phone number rather than trusting a potentially false online advertisement.
"Make sure you know who you're dealing with," he said.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.