4 Apartment Rental Scams to Beware of and Avoid

Springtime often brings forth thoughts of moving into a newer, closer or better apartment. Likewise, some freelancers wish to set up shop at a location outside their home, or to work from a location that is closer to their client’s headquarters.

Unfortunately, scammers are well aware of the springtime move tendency and try to capitalize on hapless renters. Here are four common apartment rental scam scenarios that you should be aware of (and avoid):

Apartment rental scams to avoid

Scenario #1: You scan the newspaper and find an apartment with many amenities at a super low rate. You call or email the owner of the property and they are more than happy to show you the apartment; however, you must first provide your personal information, such as your social security number, address, bank account numbers, birth date, etc. Once you provide this information, you never hear from the owners again.

The real deal: More than likely, you’ve just been a victim of an identity theft. The scammer is a hacker who will now attempt to access your personal records and make purchases on your credit cards and/or bank accounts.

Scenario #2: The owner in question is not available because s/he lives abroad, is a missionary, in the military, etc. However, s/he will gladly accept your application and security deposit and send you the keys (via an agent, lawyer, etc.) to the apartment once these materials are received. Once you send your application and wire the money, you never receive those promised keys or hear from the owner again.

The real deal: You’ve just had your money and identity stolen by someone who created a fake apartment rental ad. That person could in fact be out-of-state, or even out of the country. The so-called agent, lawyer, etc. is imaginary.

Scenario #3: The ‘owner’ answers your ad inquiry and even agrees to show you the apartment. You are then asked to fill out a rental agreement, provide your bank and other information, and leave a security deposit plus one or two months’ rent. When it comes time to move in, however, you find out that not only is the apartment no longer available for rent, but that the “owner” you dealt with has long since left town.

The real deal: A scammer broke into an unoccupied apartment and showed it to you as their own. Alternately, the scammer is a buddy of the actual renter/owner of the apartment and is using the place as a base of operations for his/her scam. In some cases, the scammer is an evicted tenant of the apartment and is using it to collect money from unsuspecting renters before being kicked out by the sheriff.

Scenario #4: You find a reasonably priced sublet on Craigslist and agree to take it for a few months after meeting with the current renter and landlord. You provide your information and deposit, then have trouble getting in touch with either the renter or landlord. Upon conducting some research, you learn that the real landlord not only doesn’t allow sublets, but has even disallowed Craigslist ads of rentals because of sublet scammers.

The real deal: Scammer duos pose as renters and landlords and list properties that they either have access to and/or can pretend to own. Unsuspecting renters provide their information and security deposits and may even receive fake keys. Once the transaction is complete, the scammers disappear, leaving their victims with worthless keys and no address to call their own.

How to not be a victim of an apartment rental scam

Each of the following above scenarios can be prevented if you follow a few simple protocols when apartment-hunting.

  • You are not required to provide any of your personal or financial information, nor any money, as a condition of viewing an apartment.
  • You should never wire money to anybody, ever, and especially not without first viewing the property.
  • If the actual property owner does in fact live overseas, use your credit card or Paypal to secure your claim on the property. Reputable owners will often ask that you use a verified third party rental website to place a deposit.
  • Before providing anything to an ‘owner,’ check with the city/county website and verify actual ownership.
  • When dealing with a potential owner via Craigslist or other ad, call the listed phone number and talk to the person one-on-one. Verify everything that the owner emailed to you to ensure that his/her email wasn’t compromised.
  • Be leery of owners who appear too eager to rent their apartment to you, or who don’t care about your background screening or whether or not you can sign a lease.
  • Don’t believe that any owner would rent their place remotely- most owners want to actually see their renters before saying yes to them. Alternately, absentee landlords will entrust their property to a local real estate management company.
  • If an apartment is priced far below the price points of its neighbors, there could be a scam afoot.
  • If you must pay money, use your credit card, Paypal, or a verified apartment pay website. Never pay with cash or personal check. Never wire money to anybody.

The FTC provides additional information on apartment rental listing scams and how to spot them.

What if you become a victim of a rental scam?

If you do unknowingly become the victim of an apartment rental scam, you should first contact the police. In such situations, legal authorities may already be aware of the scam, and your testimony might help solve the case and catch the culprits.

If you answered an ad, get a hold of the publisher and notify him/her of the issue. Again, the publisher may have additional information on the scammer that could be provided to the police.

Contact the FTC by dialing 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357) or going to the FTC Complaint Assistant. If you suspect that your scammer is based outside of the U.S., file your complaint with Econsumer.

By taking the above noted steps, you’ll not only provide valuable clues to authorities, but you’ll help warn others about the scam.

Pump-and-Dump Stock Scam Alert: Bollinger Report

Back in late July, I wrote how I’d been scammed out of $13,000 through a pump-and-dump stock investment scam perpetrated by Bollinger Report. Just when I thought I was done licking my wounds from that particular hit, these scammers decided to start calling me on my cell phone and recommending yet another pump-and-dump stock scam. Their continued onslaught inspired me to research the company in question and its methods. What I found out was quite revealing and has taught me some important lessons about investing in stocks. So, without further ado…

What exactly is a pump-and-dump scam?

When company stocks are offered to the public, they go through an initial public offering or IPO. The stock is typically priced at a reasonable dollar amount; for example, Google went IPO to the tune of $85/share. However, some company stocks go IPO at very low prices (i.e., under $5/share); such stocks are often termed penny stocks. The reasons for such low prices include small company size (e.g., 5 or fewer employees) or miniscule private investment. The company’s business model is also often based on speculation; many penny stock companies are involved in exploratory drilling or mining operations where the payoff could be huge- or absolutely nothing.

Because many penny stocks trade, quite literally, in the pennies, they are also often subject to artificial (and illegal) price manipulation through so-called pump-and-dump scams. In a classic pump-and-dump, a small pool of sham investors will buy a block of penny stock shares in order to raise the stock trading price. These investors will also initiate a marketing campaign to alert outside public investors about this penny stock’s “opportunity” to break out of penny stock territory and become “legit”. The hype continues until a finite number of investors have been duped into buying shares, effectively raising the price of that penny stock. At that point, the sham investors quickly dump their shares and pocket the difference. The outside public investors are now not only left with nearly worthless shares of stock, but that remaining stock is so lightly traded that it’s hard to sell to other investors.

How the Bollinger Report fits into the pump-and-dump scam model

The Bollinger Report (http://www.bollingerreport.com) is actually a series of websites, all operating under the same Denver, Colorado-based ISP of 72.18.133.75, that promotes various penny stock companies through pump-and-dump scam operations. Here is the list of all the websites found to date:

http://www.brightonmarkets.com

http://www.equityleader.com

http://equitymarketsinc.net

http://globalequityalert.com

http://www.marketfoundations.com

http://www.breakoutfinder.net

http://www.risingsunreport.com

The Bollinger Report scam begins when potential investors go to one of the above listed sites, leave their information, including a phone number, and request more information about a stock of their choosing. The person who calls them back will discuss the mentioned stock and then start promoting (i.e., pumping) a particular penny stock. The investors are also emailed reports that tout how that penny stock is about to appreciate anywhere from 100%-500% in the next month. Once enough investors are recruited to a particular penny stock, raising its price, the calls and emails stop. At that point the price of the touted stock suddenly drops (i.e., dumps) by as much as 90%, sometimes in a matter of minutes. Investors are left with a case of vertigo and are in shock over the loss of their investment.

My personal experience with Bollinger Report

In my particular case, in late August I started receiving calls from Mr. Brad Romero of Bollinger Report. Initially, he discussed another “successful” penny stock that his company had promoted, Independence Energy Corporation (ticker: IDNG). Independence Energy is an oil and natural gas exploration company with no known land assets or revenue. If you look on the stock chart below, you will see how IDNG underwent a classic pump-and-dump “needle” lifecycle including a sharp rise to a point (the pump), followed by a dramatic drop (the dump):

 IDNG pump and dump scam

When I countered Mr. Romero on his view that this was a successful (successful for who?) stock investment, he held how the company had unexpectedly made a 5:1 forward split, thus dropping its share price for certain investors. Because of this issue, Bollinger Report had itself experienced some backlash and was currently reorganizing under a different name and website (surprise!). That information should’ve ended our call right there but no: Mr. Romero now had another “hot investment tip” to share with me. That tip consisted of Punchline Resources Limited (ticker: PUNL). Located below is Punchline’s stock lifecycle- notice any similarities to Independence Energy?

Punchline Resources pump and dump scam

Being that I received my call(s) from Mr. Romero in late August to early September, Punchline had yet to deliver its classic punchline to unwary investors. However, having already looked at IDNG, I noted that PUNL was following the same pump-and-dump pattern as IDNG. I also noted this fact to Mr. Romero, telling him outright that this looked like another pump-and-dump scam. However, neither my mentioning of “pump-and-dump” nor “scam” fazed him. He just kept cheerfully jabbering on about how Punchline was going to deliver some amazing profits for investors who got in on it NOW. I’m sure there were profits to be had, at least by a few “investors”. I then asked Mr. Romero who was paying Bollinger to pump up this stock.

Brad didn’t seem to understand my question so I rephrased it. In essence, I told Brad that Bollinger could not be making any money if all it did was send out free stock alerts to subscribers. So, how did the website make its money?

Brad cheerfully replied that Bollinger Report made its revenue through ads and through third parties that wanted to raise awareness about a particular company. Hmm…now we were getting somewhere. Since I had some time to kill, I asked Brad about these third parties and who they were.

Unfortunately, Brad was not aware of their exact identities at the moment (however, the following website discloses the sham investors in IDNG). He then quickly redirected my attention to Punchline, asking if he could email me additional information about the company. I happily agreed to that offer, figuring it’d provide me with some critical details about Bollinger Report, or whatever the scam had decided to call itself. Unfortunately, that report never showed up in my inbox.

The end result- and a lesson learned

I watched Punchline’s rise until it unexpectedly decided to drop in mid- to late September. And just as unexpectedly, my calls from Mr. Romero stopped too. Who would’ve thought? The hard lesson I learned here, if you go back to my post from July, is that investment scams are out there and scammers have no qualms about cold-calling/emailing prospective investors in order to scam them out of their money. Thus, before you plunk down your hard-earned dollars on an offer that’s just too good to pass up, carefully consider who might be benefiting from that offer.

Scam update (April 14, 2013)

The Bollinger Report URL is no more. However, the IP address that Bollinger operated under (72.18.133.75) is still active and contains two other penny stock/pump-and-dump domain names: gainhunter.com and brightonmarkets.com.

Brighton Markets, along with Bollinger Report, both promoted prior pump-and-dump stock scams Independence Energy (OTC BB:IDNG) and Punchline Resources (OTC BB:PUNL).

Until late February, Gain Hunter was still touting shell companies such as Green Innovations Ltd. (GNIN:OB) to investors through email. With the rise, and the inevitable fall of GNIN, both Gain Hunter and Brighton are still online but their websites have been completely stripped down. Another online incarnation of the Bollinger Report is likely in the making and the group is probably biding its time until things cool down.

While perusing the skeleton site of Brighton Markets, I was intrigued by its disclaimer. Here is an excerpt from the site:

“We are engaged in the business of marketing and advertising companies for monetary compensation.”

Perhaps most enlightening was the following passage:

“Please be advised that BrightonMarkets.com has been paid in the past by third-parties, and expects to continue to be paid by other third parties, to perform promotional and advertising services. These services include the issuance of this release and the other opinions that we release concerning a profiled company. BrightonMarkets.com has not investigated the background of the hiring companies. Anyone viewing this newsletter should assume the hiring parties or affiliates of the hiring parties own shares of the profiled company of which they plan to liquidate, further understanding that the liquidation of those shares may or may not negatively impact the share price.”

In other words, groups like Brighton Markets are hired by inside traders of companies whose stock they then promote to naïve outside investors. Those inside traders, meanwhile, are simply trying to raise the stock price of the company that is about to be shut down. When enough outside investors have bought the company’s shares and raised its stock price, these insiders quickly start selling. Such a sell-out not only lowers the company’s stock price, and oftentimes in the space of a single day, but the glut of sell orders makes it virtually impossible for later orders by panicked outside investors to be executed. Those hapless outside investors are now stuck with their worthless shares.

It’s too bad that Brighton Markets didn’t provide their disclaimer as follows: “Before you invest with us, please watch the movie “Boiler Room”.

Don’t Work for ShortTask.com

There have been a few programs popping up lately that offer to pay people to complete small mundane tasks. For example, you might get paid to post a comment on a blog, or write an article, or get in contact with people.

The most reputable program around is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program, but there are some new programs opening up, like ShortTask.

What is ShortTask?

When I first stumbled upon the website, I thought that this was surely going to a great way for you guys to make money online. You complete a few small tasks, accumulate money, then get paid. I even sent an email over to our good friend Eddy at http://www.workathomenoscams.com/ to cover ShortTask as well. Shortly after sending that message, everything went downhill and I quickly apologized for my email.

I started glancing through the available tasks. There were a few high-paying tasks available. For example, you could round up a few resumes and earn $5.00 or write a 300-word review for $3.00. The pay wasn’t impressive, but for someone who has time to kill and desperately needs money, working at ShortTask could make all the difference. It was around this time that I found out you needed to have accumulated $50 in order to get paid. This was warning number one. If you were completing work, why couldn’t you get paid immediately for the work you performed? It would take quite some time to earn enough money to cash out.

I started digging through the tasks a bit more and it quickly became clear that there was no way in hell I was going to give this a positive review. It seems that the best paying jobs were put up front to entice you to join ShortTask and perform work. However, dive a few pages deep and you’ll find tasks for no more than 5 cents per hour! Five measly freakin’ cents.

You’re better off wandering the streets looking for loose change! I was mad when I saw the five cents per hour tasks, but I was furious to see another task offering to pay $0.02 for an hours work. TWO PENNIES. TWO MEASLY STINKING PENNIES. Are you kidding me? No one is that desperate.

Once the initial outrage subdued, I wanted to find out more information on who was running ShortTask. I stumbled upon quite possibly one of the best online smackdowns I’ve ever read at “SHORTTASK.COM IS THE NEWEST SCAM WEBSITE BY ANDREW HARRISON BARNES”.

I found out that the person running ShortTask.com was Andrew Harrison Barnes. A short time ago, Mr. Barnes was banned from Amazon’s mechanical turk program for life for paying people to spam the web for him. With nowhere else to go he founded ShortTask so he could continue to pay people a pathetic amount of money to post false endorsements for his various spam websites. The following is an excerpt from the post above and I highly suggest you read it all the way through.

The main purpose of Barnes’ “tasks” on ShortTask is to get people to post false endorsements of his scam websites. By doing so, it causes postings on other blogs and websites to fall down in the search engine listings related to him, thereby making him and his scam sites seem legit. Therefore, when someone tries to look up relevant info on Barnes or his scam sites, the first thing that comes up is the numerous more current postings of him which are no doubt positive, since he is offering to pay individuals to post them.

Many of the names of the individuals making positive comments about Barnes are false names and aliases and in fact posted by Barnes himself. In fact, many of the names of the so-called “employees” or “representatives” of Barnes’ companies are made up.

They are, in fact, Barnes himself. Andrew Harris Barnes is low class and low rent. He has created a sophisticated facade of himself on the internet by using aliases to pretend he has so many employees and properties and business locations. The truth is that Barnes uses answering services in almost every city in which he claims to do business. He owns little to no property. Even the buildings placed on his websites can be found in stock photo images of buildings or are addresses to buildings which he does not own and holds no leases. Didn’t I tell you he was prolific?

The Bottom Line

Stay far away from ShortTask. The pay is awful and the “work” you complete could potentially land you in a lot of trouble. If you are interested in making money completing tasks, then sign up for Swagbucks. The company is reputable and it’s a good way to earn a little extra side cash in your down time.

Have you had any experience with ShortTask, Barnes, or Mechanical Turk? If so, leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.