NOVEMBER 11, 2021 – The Presidio of Monterey Housing Office proactively helps military personnel recognize and avoid the millions of fake off-post rental listings on websites worldwide.
Not only do housing officials warn incoming and outgoing personnel about the listings, they regularly update a searchable Department of Defense webpage that includes inspected properties, and make in-person visits to help ensure listings on other sites are legitimate.
The office’s approach is in keeping with a U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division, or CID, warning about the need for members of the military community to be cautious when responding to housing rental advertisements.
Although rental scams may target anyone, military service members may be more prone to falling victim due to frequent permanent-change-of-station moves and because they may not be available to view a property in person prior to living in the area, according to CID.
Ruby Sutton, housing manager for the PoM Housing Office, said the office helps personnel who have not yet arrived in Monterey by regularly updating the DoD’s Home.mil website, where housing officials at military installations throughout the world can provide personnel with housing listings.
The office’s staff personally inspect many of the installation’s listings, and personnel can request an inspection—whether the listing is on the DoD website or another—simply by calling and requesting one, Sutton said.
When a listing on the PoM Homes.mil site states that the office has inspected a home, it means a representative from the office has gone inside the residence, talked to the landlord and left assured it’s a good fit, Sutton said.
Inspections comprise of checks for life, health and safety issues, including mold, and overall safety of the residence and its surroundings, Sutton said.
Incoming personnel can also contact the housing office and request a welcome packet that contains housing information, Sutton said, and personnel can send it via email.
Sutton and Edward Labarge, special agent in charge of the CID Major Cybercrime Unit, said one sign that a classified advertisement or website listing is a scam is an exceptionally low price.
“If it’s too good to be true, it usually is,” Labarge said. “Also, a good telltale sign that the listing is a scam is that the landlords won’t want to meet you in person or there is no screening process. Every landlord will want to make sure they meet you in person, no matter how brief, since they are making a major decision to trust that you’ll follow the rules of the lease.”
Sutton said the high cost of housing in the Monterey area makes the low rents that scammers advertise particularly enticing. The 2021 “Basic Allowance Housing” rate for junior enlisted service members, or those between the ranks of E1 and E4, is $2,418 a month if they have dependents, according to PresidioOfMontereyHousing.com.
“[Military personnel] see something that’s really cheap they want to go and get that, and a lot of times, those cheap places are not for real,” Sutton said.
Sutton said she also warns personnel not to let photos in advertisements fool them or to send anyone photos of themselves.
While advertisements may look real because they include photos from the insides and outsides of properties, scammers have simply copied the photos from real estate websites available to the public, Sutton said.
“They have pictures of the inside of places, but a lot of it comes from when that house sold, and that house could have sold 12 years ago, but they go in and they find those pictures and use those pictures,” Sutton said.
It is likewise important not to send anyone photos because scammers could then use them in future scams, Sutton said.
Everyone in the housing office works as a team to help prevent scams, and while successful housing scams involving PoM personnel are not common, they have happened, and it is important to be vigilant, Sutton said.
For example, one local homeowner in Pacific Grove had a sign on his door with his phone number because so many people had arrived at his door after seeing a fake advertisement, Sutton said. Thankfully housing personnel visited the home before the renter sent anyone money.
The office can help with dubious landlords as well, Sutton said.
“I went out last week to look at a place for a person that was coming from Alaska,” Sutton said. “The landlord was skeptical because they said they were coming from Alaska, and she was trying to make sure she wasn’t being scammed. So I went out and saw the house for [the renter].”
CID warns that scammers often use names from legitimate postings and change the email address, or other contact information, to their own. “Phantom Rentals Scammers,” on the other hand, make fake listings using photos from properties that are not for rent, for sale, or do not exist.
For more information on housing or to schedule an inspection, personnel can call the PoM housing office at (831) 242-7979 or (831) 242-7974.
CID officials recommend that anyone who feels they are a victim of a rental scam can contact the PoM CID office at (831) 242-2525. People can also contact the PoM Police Department at (831) 242-7851. CID also recommends people contact the Federal Trade Commission, and their website for complaints is https://consumercomplaints.fcc.gov.
In addition, CID provides the following advice:
Watch for warning signs:
- They want you to sign or send money before you see the property.
- They want the security deposit or first month’s rent before you sign the lease.
- They ask you to wire or send money through a payment app.
- They say they are out of town or out of the country.
- They are ready to make a deal with no background information.
Protect yourself from becoming a victim of a rental scam:
- Do not rely solely on email to contact the owner and be wary of foreign telephone numbers.
- Do online research of the rental company, property address, and the owner.
- Conduct a reverse image search of the photos to see where else the images are being used.
- Ask for additional photos. The actual owner or property manager should be able to provide additional photos.
- Compare rent amount to other rentals in the area.
- Take a tour, or have someone you know in the area tour for you, in person or by video.
- Call the company to verify before signing a lease agreement.
- Never pay a security deposit, first month’s rent, or application fee with cash, wire transfers, gift cards, prepaid cards, or payment apps. Once you send it, there is no way to get your money back.
- Obtain and review a copy of any contract prior to sending any money or providing any personal information.
- Do not make rush decisions. Scammers will often pressure suspecting victims to complete the deal quickly due to increased interest in the property, creating a false sense of urgency.
By Winifred Brown