The idea of “fake news” and how to tell it from the real thing has gotten scads of attention lately, so St. Cloud web users are entitled to be more skeptical than usual of news items. Last week, there was one of those “come hither” headlines you run across on the web—but with a byline from The Washington Post, it looked like it would contain actual news.

Sure enough, this one was for real: “How to Spot a Housing Rental Scam.” Housing rental scams aren’t totally unknown in Minnesota—so dispatches about how to spot any new kind of St. Cloud housing rental funny business figured to be worth checking into. It turns out that the article originated in the Washington Post for a good reason: it centered on a surge in housing rental rip-offs being attempted right now in the nation’s capital.

It seems that every change in Administration causes a real estate upheaval in D.C. Literally thousands of out-of-towners have been looking for short-term living quarters during the changing of the political guard. Many plan on having more time to find permanent living arrangements once they’ve adjusted to their new situations—so a quick temporary fix is called for. It isn’t just the headline cabinet heads and their assistants who may suddenly be looking for digs near Pennsylvania Avenue, Capitol Hill, or Foggy Bottom: lots of temps on short-term contracts are piling into town, too.

Since they aren’t familiar with rental stock and prices in the area (a situation familiar to some St. Cloud newcomers), they become prime targets for scamsters lying in wait. The hoped-for payoff is a nice fat security-plus-rental deposit meant to secure one of the coveted furnished apartments in the right area.

The downside for the would-be renter is that the hokum artists have no connection with the actual apartment being offered. They advertise with pictures and detailed descriptions (the pictures can be from real D.C. apartments at different addresses). For out-of-towners in a hurry and too occupied with affairs of state to sweat the details, the result can be a crater in their checkbook and no place to put their belongings once they arrive in Washington.

This might seem like a brazen move, but for accomplished crooks, knowing exactly how to vanish after receiving a mailed-in money order or bank account information is a basic skill.

What’s the solution for someone seeking to reserve a housing rental in St. Cloud when circumstances make it impossible to visit in advance? Zillow says that a request for payment via Western Union, Moneygram or prepaid credit card is one definite red flag. Others are a failure to disclose the street address—or a price that seems too good to be true (although the current batch of Washington crooks may be onto that, setting prices just below market). The ultimate answer—which applies to St. Cloud housing rentals as well, is to ask a lot of questions (anathema to most scam artists). Better yet, if you have a trusted friend in the area, asking him or her to take a look at the property in advance should uncover any funny business.

We aren’t hosting momentous government changes at the moment, but for St. Cloud real estate matters of all stripes, knowing that you are dealing with a trusted and experienced real estate professional is the surest way to rest assured no funny business is at hand. A call to my office is all it takes!