Montgomery Co. tracks sophisticated online scams targeting buyers and sellers

Sophisticated scams intending to fleece buyers and sellers have recently picked up in Montgomery County, Maryland.

The Office of Consumer Protection is tracking online scams that are harder to catch than your average phishing scheme. They can revolve around simple transactions, such as real estate, according to the agency’s director, Eric Friedman.

Friedman noted a recent Craigslist scam in which a renter could be lured in by a copy of real estate photos from a legitimate listing offered at a low rental price.

The ads have a story about why the landlord can’t meet up with the future tenants and instructs them to send a deposit to secure the apartment in exchange for keys that will be sent later.

“Rental advertisements may also include phony government documents to convince the prospective tenant that the advertisement is legitimate. Our office investigated a complaint in which the scammer sent a fake document to the consumer inquiring about the rental.

“This creative scammer made a fictitious ‘Certificate of Occupancy’ to fool the prospective tenant into believing that the rental apartment advertised was properly registered with Montgomery County,” Friedman said in a release.

Fake details contained in the document were difficult to spot without prior knowledge or a bit of research.

One document referenced the Montgomery County Department of Public Works — which sounds legitimate but doesn’t actually exist. It used the address of the county executive and listed fake county employees to imbue credibility.

Craigslist is not the only website where scammers operate. However, the site does have a guide to help buyers and sellers watch out for scams.

Among the first tips: Meet face-to-face.

Friedman suggests meeting at designated safe exchange locations like local police stations. And report any fraudulent posts or activity to the Consumer Protection Office.

Sellers also need to be careful when buying something offline.
“When consumers offer items for sale on Craigslist, it is common for scammers to contact the consumer and pretend to be interested in purchasing the item for sale,” Friedman said.
“The fake buyer typically will have a story about why the buyer needs to pay with a check that is made payable for more than the selling price. In return, the scam buyer will instruct the consumer to send a check back to the buyer to return the extra money.
“Of course, the scam buyer’s check will prove to be worthless and the consumer selling the item will have lost the money sent to the scam buyer or may receive nothing for having sold the advertised item.”
Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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