Rental scams are trickier than ever in Colorado’s housing crunch

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4min 19sec
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A runner watches for traffic at the apartment-lined corner of 16th and Boulder streets in Denver’s Lower Highlands neighborhood on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. LoHi is a standout in an already-hot rental market in the city — conditions which make it attractive for rent scammers to prey on victims.

In one of Denver’s most desirable neighborhoods, the Lower Highlands, 40-year-old Jessica Puzio was home when she heard a knock at her front door last fall. The elderly couple on her doorstep wanted to see the duplex rental they found on Craigslist at her address. 

“I had no idea what they were talking about,” Puzio said. 

The couple told Puzio they found her 750-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath house listed for about $1,000 less than typical rents in the area. This was the first time someone mistook her house for a rental from an online listing — the first of many. 

Now for the embarrassing part. I made the same mistake.

I started emailing with someone I thought was Puzio in April after getting a job for CPR News. I was looking for housing in a rental market that was a shock coming from the reasonably priced Pittsburgh. The average rent for a one-bedroom there is between $1,000 and $1,500 — in metro Denver, it’s around $1,700 and $2,000.

And here was this beautiful, furnished rental on Craigslist. After a few back-and-forth emails, I sent $665 for a security deposit. 

After realizing the red flags and the gut feeling that something wasn’t right, I found the number for the real Puzio and called, hoping that she was the same person I’d emailed and paid. Nope. That money was gone.

I hadn’t even set foot in Colorado before I was scammed trying to find a place to live in Denver. 

How common is the issue?

How pervasive rental scams are in the state is hard to pin down. As a journalist, I set out to find how many people may have met the same embarrassing fate I had. But law enforcement agencies don’t routinely track this specific type of scam. The Denver Police Department said they suspected there were large scamming operations located overseas.

And that it’s extremely hard and nearly impossible for police to track and catch scammers when they use different types of burner accounts — fake email accounts and social media handles.

According to data released by the Better Business Bureau’s scam tracker, Colorado had the 4th most rental scams per capita in 2021 with 70 reported scams. Idaho, Hawaii and California were in the top three. The rankings were based on the total number of scams reported from 2015-21, divided by the population of each state. 

The Colorado Attorney General’s office said that nearly 100 rental scam complaints had been filed through Stop Fraud Colorado — an organization within the state AG’s office — since the start of 2021.

The office doesn’t have any available data before that. 

“We’ve seen 82 rental scam complaints come in through Stop Fraud Colorado since the start of 2021,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. “We recently gained new authority to pursue housing issues in HB22-1082, which creates a housing unit in the Department of Law and we hope to have a greater impact in this area in the future.”

The bill, signed in May, expands the statutory list of state laws allowing the attorney general to bring civil and criminal enforcement related to housing and creates a fair housing unit within the department of law.

The Colorado Poverty Law Project, a group of local attorneys who connect low-income people with free legal services to fight evictions and housing injustice, sees new rent scam victims once every couple months. The nonprofit’s founder, Tom Snyder, said the folks they’ve represented had minimal options for recourse.  

“Oftentimes the house is in a lock box, so the tenant will show up to the house and do an in-person inspection, along with the person who represents themselves as the owner,” said Snyder, who is also a partner with the Kutak Rock law firm. “But the owner somehow, in some way, has gotten a code to that lockbox. And you don’t know, was it an inside job? Was it a maintenance person? A contractor? Do certain realtors use certain codes to specific lockboxes? 

“I don’t know, but that’s what we’ve seen. We’ve seen people access lockboxes themselves and the owner isn’t even there, and the price will be right and the tenant will sign the agreement. And they’ll inevitably wire money somewhere.” 

Relentless tricksters

Back in LoHi, after Puzio’s initial encounter with the elderly couple, the scam using her address ramped up significantly. 

She began getting phone calls and emails from random people interested in renting out her residence. Some even showed up to her house after signing a fake lease and paying hundreds, even thousands of dollars for security deposits and rent to someone posing online as her. 

Courtesy of Jessica Puzio
Jessica Puzio, 40, of Denver, has been the victim of an online rental scam since last fall. Images of her house, located in LoHi, one of Denver's most desirable neighborhoods, were used by scammers to trick people into sending money for rent.

False rental advertisements on Craigslist depicted her property as fully furnished with a carport. The scammers had pulled photos of her house from Zillow. They were patient with victims via email and offered thousands-dollar rent packages if one opted to pay six months to a year in advance.

The scammers were crafty. They sent prospective renters — me included — tenant references — people who responded with seemingly real background stories about their time renting from Puzio. That makes it harder for police too. Denver police said scammers often use Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) to mask their number and want people to use peer-to-peer payment methods like Zelle and Venmo.

“The first couple of times I just brushed it off and I let people know it was a scam and I also went onto Craigslist to see if I could do some investigation of my own,” she said.

But every time she went online, the listing had already been flagged and removed. 

“Then it just started happening more and more often. I started getting a few phone calls and emails a week,” Puzio said.

In April, Puzio was home and on a conference call for work when someone knocked on the door — again. It was a guy who had a U-Haul parked out front with his dog in the front seat. He had paid the scammers nearly $2,000 for first month’s rent plus a security deposit, and he thought was moving into his new home.

“I could tell he kind of had a rough day,” she said. “He looked tired and sweaty. I had to break it to him that this was a scam.”

The man was embarrassed and told her he should have known better, but he had been forced out of his previous housing situation and had hoped for a break with a nice, affordable rental. 

“My heart really broke for him,” Puzio said. “I wondered where he would go and what he would do, and he didn’t share that with me. I followed up with the police to see what could be done because people were getting hurt behind this.”

Puzio eventually contacted Denver Police fraud Detective Brian Matos. He couldn’t offer her much help beyond taking note of the report and advising her about what to look out for. 

Puzio has since moved to Seattle. After proactively checking Craigslist for weeks since January and personally flagging about 12 fake listings of her property, she said the calls and emails from random people significantly slowed. 

What can be done?

The top places with rent scam victims in Colorado are in Denver and Colorado Springs, according to the BBB. And in a tight and expensive housing market, scammers have an ideal opportunity to prey on people just trying to find an affordable place to live.

When I spoke with Denver police in April after I’d been scammed out of a security deposit, I was told I’d have to file a police report in Pittsburgh. Police told me there wasn’t much they could do for the loss of my $665. It was just gone.

Despite the challenge, police have successfully arrested and charged alleged scammers in the state.

In 2016, the Denver District Attorney’s Office charged Andres Torres, 55, and his mother Elena Romero, 82, for their involvement in an alleged rental scam while they were already serving sentences for similar crimes. Police said Torres stole his friend’s identity, then advertised a house for rent on Craigslist. He claimed to be the victim of the identity theft to the unsuspecting renter. Torres then allegedly forged lease agreements and checks made payable to the identity theft victim and enlisted the help of his mother’s boyfriend to negotiate the checks.

In a more recent case last month, 37-year-old Brandon Hernandez was arrested in Morrison, just west of Denver, after Colorado Springs police say he stole $25,000 worth of jewelry while posing as a real estate agent at different open houses along the Front Range. Hernandez also had several active felony arrest warrants from several counties, including El Paso, Weld, Denver, Douglas, Arapahoe, Boulder and Jefferson.

Snyder says to avoid rent scams, you have to assess the entire situation.

“There’s the old adage, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” Snyder said. “Unfortunately here in Colorado, we don’t have uniform leases so there’s really not a lot of red flags shown to you in a lease. Where are you sending the money? A lot of the time you aren’t sure, so you just have to look, feel and smell at the situation and see if it’s legitimate. One thing you can do if you’re renting an individual house, is look up the property owner by searching the county’s property records. It’s very easy to find out who the main owner of a house is and see if it matches the person you are contracting with.”

Bottom line: This can happen to anyone.

I once prided myself on not succumbing to scams, but this was certainly a new experience and a serious lesson learned. 

Puzio said she never thought in a million years something like this would happen to her.

“You think at first that you have some sort of power to track these people down, but then you realize it's all fake,” she said.

How to avoid a scam

Consumers have to be aware and very cautious. 

According to the Division of Real Estate within the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agency, typically, scammers post professional, fake advertisements on social media, including Facebook, Twitter, or Craigslist to get the attention of those looking to rent a property. Stop Fraud Colorado and Denver police suggest the following tips for consumers:

  • Avoid listings that require you to act immediately or pressure you to act urgently.  
  • Be wary of sending deposit money via wire transfer or other money transmittal services, such as Western Union or MoneyGram. 
  • Avoid listings priced much lower than comparable places.
  • Avoid listings with grammatical and spelling errors and use of all CAPS, broken English or foreign accents
  • Exercise caution if the person won’t meet with you in person, if they want you to sign a lease before seeing a property and if there is a different contact number than what’s posted in the yard sign.
  • Never provide personal identifying information.
  • Always use a reputable property management company or agency to locate legitimate housing.