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Scammers using Zillow data to rent out apartments they don’t own

LuminitIspas real estate agent with Century 21 S.G.R. says she tells people: “If it sounds like too good deal it

Luminita Ispas, a real estate agent with Century 21 S.G.R., says she tells people: “If it sounds like too good of a deal, it has to be wrong.”

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Updated: November 3, 2012 6:05AM

When Eleni Demertzis was apartment hunting recently, she found a bargain in a West Loop building where a friend lives.

The rent for the two-bedroom unit was listed at $1,750 a month on the Zillow real estate database — about $750 less than usual, Demertzis said.

She contacted the owner through Zillow and quickly realized he probably was a scammer.

The man emailed that he lived in New Mexico, was disabled and wouldn’t come to Chicago to show Demertzis the apartment until she wired him a month’s rent.

Even when Demertzis told the man she worked for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, he continued to try to rent her the property in the 900 block of West Madison.

A sheriff’s official then contacted Luminita Ispas, the listing agent for the property.

“I said, ‘That’s not the name of the owner. Do not send money. It’s a scam,’ ” said Ispas, a real estate agent at Century 21 S.G.R.

The scammer must have sensed something was wrong because his ad disappeared.

An Internet search showed that hundreds of online rental ads across the country listed the same man as the owner of the properties. People visiting Zillow have posted warnings about dealing with the man, who goes by the name Tom Donell.

On its website, Zillow says anyone asking for an out-of-state wire transfer of funds in a real estate deal should raise a red flag.

Law-enforcement authorities said they hadn’t identified who was behind the scam involving “Tom Donell.”

But the FBI has been warning about such fraud involving Nigerian organized crime groups for several years.

FBI spokesman Ross Rice said the bureau routinely receives complaints about fraud involving online ads for property. But given the volume of the complaints and relatively small amount of each loss, agents don’t investigate many of those cases, he said.

Zeke Morris, president of the Chicago Association of Realtors, warned of a similar scam: Criminals have been changing the locks on homes in Chicago, putting ads on the Internet to rent the properties and receiving deposits from prospective tenants.

“When they prepare to move in, they realize it was a scam,” he said.

Morris encouraged anyone trying to buy or rent a property to go through a licensed real estate professional whose credentials can be checked on the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation website.

Ispas said she tells people: “If it sounds like too good of a deal, it has to be wrong.”

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