How to avoid housing scams in Summit County |

How to avoid housing scams in Summit County

Breckenridge Police Department says in some instances scammers will use the names of local real estate agents to seem legitimate

Longbranch Condominiums in Breckenridge is shown on Dec. 30, 2021. Housing has long been an issue in Summit County, and online scams complicate the ongoing problems.
Tripp Fay/For the Summit Daily News

When Sierra Sieben relocated to Summit County, she was coming from San Diego, California and used Craiglist and the Facebook group Summit County Housing Connection to find a place to live. She was familiar with Breckenridge, having visited with her mom throughout the years. Working on the mountain for a ski season sounded like a pretty good gig.

She found what sounded liked a pretty good spot while searching on Craigslist. The one-bed, one-bath was advertised at $1,500 per month and was located at the base of Peak 9, which was in close proximity to the job she had lined up at The Overlook Restaurant.

She talked to the landlord on the phone, who sent photos of the unit. The landlord told her to make a down payment quickly since available housing usually rented fast. The communication all happened in less than a week.

After sending $3,000 to cover first and last month’s rent, she made her way east.

She was on the road – her car loaded down with belongings – when things took a turn for the worse.

“I actually found out I was scammed when I was driving from San Diego out to Breckenridge,” Sieben said.

Sieben had tried to call her landlord, Buck, but the number was disconnected. Knowing she had signed a lease for a unit at Beaver Run Resort & Conference Center, she called the front desk and was told that the lease she had signed was illegitimate and that she had been scammed.

She tried emailing and calling Buck, even looping in the Breckenridge Police Department, but to this day she hasn’t seen the $3,000 or heard from Buck again.

She continued to trek forward and crashed with a family friend for a couple of weeks before she and her then-boyfriend found a place to rent from a family who charged them $2,750 a month in Breckenridge. The pair lived there for six months.

Now living in Maui since January, Sieben said she wishes she would have done more research in hindsight. She had heard that scams existed in the county but said she “had to learn the hard way” about how scammers take advantage of people.

Unfortunately, scams like this are a relatively common occurrence in Summit County. The county has a lack of affordable housing for its workforce, and many individuals find housing by renting from second-home owners who post their available units on sites like Craigslist and Summit County Housing Connection. But renting from these sites leaves room for scams.

“It’s definitely a concern because it impacts our local population,” said Jennifer Johnson, a detective with the Breckenridge Police Department. “We’ve had reports where somebody drives up to us with a loaded U-Haul from out of state ready to move in, but then they find out that the address they thought they were renting doesn’t even exist.”

Breckenridge Assistant Police Chief Deric Gress said his office doesn’t get a call every month about these kinds of scams, but he warned that the calls they do get are difficult to investigate and that it’s even more challenging to get restitution for victims.

“We have resource tools and networking tools of other federal and local law enforcement that can assist in tracking down possible sources of the scam. If it goes beyond state lines – if there’s a nexus – then the federal law enforcement agencies can get involved, (and) they usually do,” Gress said. “They take over the case because (the scammer) could be in Miami, Florida or even in countries in Europe or Africa.”

To prevent some of these scams from happening, Breckenridge resident Ally Doolin said she spends about 10 to 12 hours per week screening all posts submitted to the Summit County Housing Connection Facebook page. The group has more than 17,000 members, and Doolin said there are dozens of people applying to be in the group on a daily basis.

The group is helpful because it’s become a known community forum where individuals can seek out housing owned by private homeowners who list their properties available for rent. But sometimes, scammers and bots slip through the cracks, usually adverting a spot that seems too good to be true.

On any given weekend, there might be 100 posts for Doolin and the group’s creator, former Summit County resident John Mcvean, to review as well as about 25 posts on a weekday. Though it takes a considerable amount of time, Doolin said it’s time well spent.

“I’m a renter, I completely understand and sympathize with everyone trying to find housing in this county,” Doolin said. “It is not easy. A lot of people want to live here, and people want to come here for work. They come here to ski. We live in what I consider to be mountain paradise. If there is anything I can do to help facilitate the process of the amazingly-ridiculous challenge of finding housing, I’m happy to do that.”

Doolin has managed the group for about four months and in that time, she’s picked up warning signs that others should be aware of too. Accounts that are a part of other housing groups in different regions or cities, requests for money to be sent through PayPal or Venmo and communication only done through email or messaging apps are all signs the post could be a scam, she says.

Gress and Johnson report that some scammers will even use the names of local real estate agents and the addresses of local houses to make individuals think the advertisement is legitimate. They recommend speaking with someone over FaceTime or the phone and finding housing through a property management company to avoid any kind of scams. Googling the address to see that the property is listed for sale and meeting a landlord in person are good measures to take too.

In some cases, these measures are hard to execute though. If individuals like Sieben are coming from out of state, they don’t have the luxury of meeting in person. And as Doolin points out, renting through a property management company isn’t always an option.

“People should investigate all of the resources. Yeah, if you go with a property management company, that’s another layer of safety, but you might also pay a higher price because those rents through property management companies have a fee built into them,” Doolin said.

Though finding housing remains to be tricky, all are in agreement that if a post or advertisement sounds too good to be true – then it likely is.

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