WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Even if you are not in the market to sell your home, you could be affected by a local scam.
One West Palm Beach man was stunned to see pictures of his own home up for sale on popular real estate website, Zillow, when he had no intentions of selling.
Someone stole pictures of his home from a realtor website, created the fake posting on Zillow, and tried to ask people to pay thousands for a holding fee on a home they would never really own.
"I felt it was very invasive that someone was using my home to try and rip people off. It just didn't sit well with me," said Todd Galinko.
He was only trying to rent out his home, never assuming he would get caught in a scam.
"We were looking to get a little bit of income in the off season," said Galinko, who resides in New Jersey during the summer.
He had his realtor post the home on MultipleListings.com, which is primarily created by realtors for realtors. The rental listing was posted no where else, but it didn't take long for a scammer to steal the information and try to sell the home on another site.
They even stole the professional photos that Galinko had taken for the rental listing and used the pictures for the fraudulent listing.
Galinko said he didn't know anything was wrong until he got calls from interested buyers and other realtors.
"It caught me off guard. I didn't know quite how to respond to her," he said. "I mean there's so many scams going on, you can't keep track of them."
One prospective buyer from New York ended up talking on the phone to the fake owner and was about to go through with the sale.
NewsChannel 5 spoke to that buyer, who wanted to remain anonymous. He said the fake buyer was a man with a foreign accent, who even posed as Galinko using his name. The potential buyer said the man acted strange and would only talk on the phone briefly before demanding they communicate only by text.
The scammer also drafted a very real-looking contract and tried to con $40,000 out of him.
The potential buyer said became suspicious and Googled the real Todd Galinko and eventually contacted him to find out the truth.
"He was ready to put down $40,000 to hold our home," said Galinko. "I don't know if just a regular consumer who was looking to buy a vacation home -- how they would even know that this was a scam?"
What made the listing even more enticing was a good bargain.
"The house was listed for sale at $425,000 which is so far below the market," said Galinko.
"So if that person wants it, if they either want to flip it or just want to rent, they are probably more willing to put the money down quickly so they don't lose that opportunity," said Michele Mason, Senior Vice President for the Better Business Bureau of South Florida.
Mason said these scams are on the rise in the past two years and there's not much they can do to shut the scams down. She said scammers will also take homes that were previously listed and repost it for "sale".
"We've seen the rental taking place for at maybe the last couple of years," she said. "As much as we hate to keep bringing up that old adage, if it's too good to be true, it probably is. This is just another great example."
"The fact that you can use the internet to learn so much about homes that are for sale or rent. a lot of individuals that are starting to do their own searches makes it a much more lucrative scam for people to take an existing opportunity and just duplicate it on other sites. we definitely want people to do their homework before spending any kind of money.
Thankfully, no one lost money in this case.
We reached out to Zillow, who said they immediately removed the listing but only after it was reported to them.
They issued the following statement:
Zillow goes to great lengths to police activity and fully inform our users of the existence of fraudulent listings and how to protect themselves. Our customer support team monitors activity on the site in a number of different ways and if a rental or FSBO listing is found to be fraudulent, it is immediately removed from Zillow. Zillow urges renters to be wary of red flags like requests for wire transfers and long-distance inquiries, and the site directs them to our fraud and scams page, which provides valuable information about how to avoid fraudulent listings. Regarding the property in West Palm Beach, Zillow's Customer Service team immediately removed the listing after fraudulent activity was reported.
Galinko filed reports with local police, FBI Cyber Crimes unit and the Federal Trade Commission. He hasn't heard back from anyone, other than a fraud prevention tip sheet from the FTC, but he says that doesn't do much for him now.
The Better Business Bureau suggests checking on a home with your own eyes before paying for anything.
"We have to remind people, especially with big ticket items like this, you've got to be extremely cautious," said Mason.