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Rental scams frustrate those looking for housing in Bozeman

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Posted at 3:52 AM, Aug 20, 2021

BOZEMAN — Finding a place to live in Bozeman can be difficult enough with housing in high demand, but add to that the threat of scammers and it really becomes a hassle.

MTN has one Bozeman woman’s story and more on what you can do to keep from getting ripped off during your hunt for a home.

She almost fell into a trap not once but four times while looking for an affordable apartment in Bozeman. Now Marlee Thomas shares her story to keep others from falling victim to a rental scam.

In early July she discovered she needed to find a new apartment, but definitely wanted to stay in town. As if finding something available wasn’t hard enough then came an unexpected obstacle.

“It was really discouraging because everything I was trying to look at that was affordable and made sense was a scam,” explained Marlee. "I ran into that four separate times to the point where someone was asking me to wire them over $4,000.”

“One was a loft and I received a lease agreement that didn’t make any sense. It wanted me to wire a cashier’s check,” she explained. “I asked a real estate agent friend of mine and he was like ‘that is absolutely not real.’”

That was just the first incident:

“Then I found another one. I literally walked up to someone’s doorstep and a man answered the door and he was drinking coffee and he was like ‘no this is no place for rent.’ That ruined his morning,” she recalled.

“Then there was one that said it was for rent for $1,600 and that was a stretch but desperate times call for desperate measures. That turned out to be a scam too. There was another one and that time I didn’t even get a response,” she said. “My mom was trying to help and she was running into the same things.”

We took Marlee’s concerns to the Bozeman Police Department for some answers on who’s behind the post and how you can see past the images that look too good to be true.

“I can say just how much publicity Bozeman is getting right now and it’s such a popular tourist destination, that makes it a target,” said Det. Sgt. Joe Swanson. “There’s a lot of people that want to live here and believe they are doing the right thing by going to any and every website to try to find a nice available place.”

“The people that are falling victim to this are essentially getting convinced they need to put a down payment on the property in various ways,” said Detective Sgt. Joseph Swanson. “A lot of them are just electronic funds transfers and there’s no real paperwork going with it. There’s just a promise over the phone. ‘Yes, send me the money you could secure the residence.’”

Det. Sgt. Swanson says they get a few complaints per week on a variety of platforms from Craigslist to various social media.

“What a lot of them are doing is taking images from legitimate real estate websites of homes that exist here and Gallatin County and they’re advertising them for rent,’” he said.

“The person that is doing this has no reason to be doing it. They do not own the property, they haven’t been hired so the listing looks fairly legitimate. It’ll have a phone number and it will have a website and a detailed explanation. Typically what we’re seeing is there will be a phone number associated with it. Some of them may have a 406 area code or a local-looking email address. What people are finding out is later they go to the home and it’s occupied,” he explained.

“The renter or homeowner comes to the door and says ‘I’ve never listed my home.’”

Det. Sgt. Swanson took a look at the listings that caught Marlee's attention. All four have since been taking down. Det. Sgt. Swanson says the posts were removed because someone likely sent a fraud report to Craigslist. He says part of the reason the bogus posts keep popping up is that they are so hard to catch and prosecute.

“Many of these we serve subpoenas on the IP address and a lot of them are originating overseas. Some of them are also being used with a virtual private network to mask the true location of the phone number. So we could spend a week serving subpoenas on multiple companies and still not determine where this actually came from,” he explained. “Also many are in areas where we don’t have jurisdiction.”

So that means you have to be aware of what to look for and go the extra mile to seek reputable agencies.

“Our suggestion is once you see an ad go check the address, do a quick Google search, do your Yahoo search, or just do a generic search on that address to see if there are other listings that come up,” said Det. Sgt. Swanson. “Maybe call a local rental company in Bozeman or local real estate company and certainly tell them about the listing and see if you can get some information.”

Marlee finally found a good place to live. She agrees with Swanson.

“Use the resources beyond what web searches you’re looking at and contact a real estate agent,” she said. “They have ways to dig.“

Above all police say never send money until you’ve gone through all the checks and balances.

“Before you send money if it all possible go to that location and check out the place,” said Det. Sgt. Swanson. “Meet the person who you’re communicating with and see if you can see the home. If you can’t do those things that should be a red flag.”

Police suggest checking with local rental agencies and real estate companies. They also suggest calling the Bozeman Chamber of Commerce or Better Business Bureau for reputable companies.