PHOENIX - Whether you’re looking to rent or you just bought a home, you could be a target of online fraud.
Rent isn’t getting any cheaper in the Valley, instead, prices are up in most Phoenix metro cities. Here's a glimpse into how easy it is for someone to capitalize on this demand from a computer or phone.
"This is the Zillow rental app," Ahmed Saber said. "It has pictures of my property from when I first purchased it."
He was surprised and concerned, to say the least.
"I purchased this property with the intent of renting it, putting it on the market as an investment property. I was researching the area on Zillow and I found a house that looked a lot like mine and I looked closer and realized it was actually my house," Saber said.
His Chandler home was in fact listed for rent on Zillow. Saber's name was listed as the contact, but the phone number wasn't his.
For about two weeks straight, the listing remained online. He reported it as fraudulent to Zillow.
"Pretending to be me and using the Zillow platform to get tenants into this house. Pretending to be me and collecting income from people," he said.
As a test, we called the number listed on Zillow for this home. No one answers but when you hang up, a text message is sent from the contact saying "This is Zillow …" and it asks for additional details to get the rental process started.
Saber quickly put up a sign on his house reading, "This home is not for rent."
"At the end, whoever is going to be the victim, they’ll find me, the real owner, and it’s going to be a headache for me," he said.
Cost of living is way up
The cost to rent an apartment in Phoenix, according to Rent.com, has gone up across the board. Three-bedroom apartments saw the largest increase with a 33% hike from last year, reaching about $2,396.
A studio alone is 16% more to rent compared to 2021, equaling about $1,125.
As for rent in cities across the Valley, the average one-bedroom costs more than 1,600 a month.
‘I should have known’
"It was brand new, everything was new in the pictures," Vanessa Lowell said. She was trying to find somewhere more affordable to live, and she thought she found just that on Facebook Marketplace. "I should have known."
It led to a string of text messages with someone using the name "Thomas Gabriel."
Messages say he was waiting on his lawyer for documents but said that she could pay various fees by using the Zelle app to send money to different email addresses.
Paying those fees almost caused her to be evicted from where she was currently living after she spent more than a thousand bucks in just days.
She never heard from "Thomas Gabriel" again.
"It really frustrates me since I’m on disability. I have a limited income … that’s all I got," she said.
How to keep safe from online scams
"Before you may get your hopes up, really think, if it could be a realistic price at this current point of time," explained Ligia Chang with the Better Business Bureau.
She advises always verifying and confirming the listing, working with a reputable rental company, and never sending money immediately.
"If they ask you to send money upfront, they could claim that it's for a background check to hold a spot, or for your first month's rent, or even a security deposit. It's important to never send money without seeing the property first and signing a lease," Chang said.
The rental listing for Saber’s home is no longer online.
FOX 10 reached out to Zillow to find out if this is a common issue, and a spokesperson says not at all.
"Zillow strives to provide a safe online platform, and we go to great lengths to monitor activity and fully inform our users of the risks of scams on the internet and how to protect themselves. Our teams monitor activity on the site in several different ways, actively screening for possible fraud or scams and preventing them from getting posted. If a listing is found to be fraudulent, it is removed from our site as quickly as possible. Our ‘How to Recognize and Avoid Rental Fraud’ page and ‘Beware of Scams and Other Internet Fraud’ page explain how to look out for red flags such as requests for wire transfers or long-distance inquiries, and provide other valuable information about how to avoid bad actors in the housing market," read a statement from Zillow.
We also contacted Meta Platforms, Facebook's parent company, about Lowell’s situation but didn't get a response.