Fake Zillow ‘For Sale By Owner’ Listing Frustrates Toms

TOMS RIVER, NJ — It’s no secret that the real estate market continues to be very hot, including in Ocean County, where home prices and rents have skyrocketed.

The hot market also has brought out the worst behavior, however, with scammers and others with nefarious motives using it as an opportunity to victimize others.

That was the situation a Toms River couple found themselves in last week after someone falsely listed their home as “for sale by owner” on Zillow, the real estate website.

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“It has been a nightmare. We have been getting calls at all hours of the night,” Ellen said. The couple’s last name is being withheld to prevent harassment.

The listing, which included just a photo of the front of their home and details that were readily available via public searches, included a date for an open house and their telephone number — which meant phone call after phone call.

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The couple first discovered it when they came home from work on June 23 and found several messages on their answering machine, including several from real estate agents who wanted to show the house to potential buyers.

“There was even a contract delivered to our mailbox, wanting to make a deal right away,” Ellen said.

She and her husband, Fred, contacted Zillow to tell them the listing was fraudulent. They also contacted Toms River police and the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, and were urged to contact the Ocean County Clerk’s office to make sure no one had requested a copy of their deed or filed anything to restrict it.

By Monday, June 27, they had received more than 60 phone calls, she said.

“We had one guy call from California at 12:45 in the morning,” she said. “The phone just wouldn’t stop ringing.”

Beyond the phone calls, there was the concern someone was trying to sell their home out from under them, Ellen said, which created a great deal of anxiety.

After multiple tries, Zillow removed the listing, Ellen said. With the listing removed, they thought the problem was resolved. Then it was listed a second time, again with an open house date.

“No one seems to be able to help us,” she said Friday afternoon, before Patch spoke with a representative of the company.

A Zillow spokesman declined to say how the company vets its “for sale by owner” real estate listings, but said the company does have safeguards in place to try to prevent scams.

The spokesman confirmed to a Patch reporter the couple’s home had been fraudulently listed twice, by two different users, but said the home’s listing had been removed and extra safeguards added to prevent further issues.

How can someone post someone else’s home for sale? It’s like anything else with the internet these days: If someone wants to do something nefarious, they will find a way.

“Zillow strives to provide a safe online community on our platform and we go to great lengths to monitor activity and inform our users of the possibility of scams and how to protect themselves,” the spokesman said. “Our teams use a number of different tools to prevent inappropriate content from publishing, but if a listing is found to be fraudulent after it’s posted, our team takes steps to remove it from our site.”

The spokesman also referred questions to the company’s Beware of scams and other internet fraud page, “which provides valuable information to users about how to avoid fraudulent listings and how to spot red flags.”

It’s not clear what the goal of the false listing of Ellen and Fred’s home aimed to accomplish. There had been no activity on their deed, and she said the couple has lived in their home for more than 30 years and they have no plans to move any time soon.

But they have activated notifications from the clerk’s office that let them know about any activity, including requests for a copy of their deed.

The Zillow spokesman said one thing homeowners can do to prevent false activity is to “claim” their home listing on the various real estate websites. Create an account on Zillow, Redfin, Realtor.com and others, and there is a process that allows you to claim your home listing on those websites.

Zillow also offers the following tips for both homeowners, homebuyers, and those seeking to rent to protect themselves from scams:

Always be wary of giving personal information, financial information, or payments of any kind to people you don’t know personally.

If you find a fraudulent listing on Zillow (or any website), report it. Each real estate and rental website has options to do that.

SCAM WARNINGS

Most scams involve a request to wire funds. Do not wire funds to anyone you haven’t met personally. Scammers create convincing reasons why they need to deal remotely. Likewise, do not accept wire funds that you did not initiate.

Long-distance landlords: Most scams come from users in foreign countries who claim to be interested in purchasing or renting out a home. Be wary of claims from people who say they are out of the country because they are missionaries, U.N. workers, or in the military.

These rental scams often involve a rental with a monthly cost below the market rate. The landlord will want you to provide personal and financial information, and they will want you to send a deposit and rent payment upfront without being able to see the rental before you sign a lease. They will offer to mail the keys once you’ve wired the money — keys that, in reality, they do not have.

This scam has been circulating in Ocean County; the scammers were using photos of homes listed for sale — which provided interior photos — and included a disclaimer saying “Don’t worry about the ‘for sale’ sign, the home is not for sale.”

Requests for verification codes: If you are asked to provide a code sent to your cell phone via text or phone call, this is a scam.

Requests for personal or financial information: Do not provide your bank account number or Social Security number to unknown sources. Verify the person is a trusted source and then only provide this information sparingly.

Typos and sob stories: Emails filled with spelling and grammatical errors are usually a sign of fraud. British spelling such as “favour” instead of “favor” is also a sign of a rental scam. Messages involving stories of family or financial issues, or of agents who charge too high a premium are usually fraud.

Report Scams and Fraud

If you believe you have been scammed, report the incident to the FTC. If you sent money via Western Union or MoneyGram, report the incident immediately: if the recipient hasn’t collected the money yet, the wire transfer company can reverse the transfer.

When reporting scams, include as much as possible of the following: the name and address of the sender, the send location, the date and amount of the transfer, the transfer fee, the date and actual location of the receipt, the name of the receiver, any information recorded regarding the receiver’s identification, the reference number for the transfer, and the details of the nature of the issue.


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