“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Houston Association of REALTORS® President and CEO Bob Hale sees these words on billboards every day on his way to work. They’re part of a passion project of HAR, in partnership with Crime Stoppers of Houston and Clear Channel Outdoor.
A few months ago, says Hale, families began stopping by HAR’s office to complain that they’d been scammed: A rental home is posted online, with convincing photos and a great price. The “landlord” asks for a security deposit, then arranges to show the rental over the weekend. Come the weekend, the renters show up, and they discover the home is already owned or rented by someone else. And their money? Gone.
Hale knew that HAR had to combat the problem. Rental scams aren’t new, but “what seems to have exacerbated the problem more recently is the limited inventory, so some consumers may see a great deal and think they need to move quickly to secure the property before someone else does,” he says. “Additionally, the fact that many people work remotely or meet virtually has made it seem more normal to not ever meet the ‘landlord’ or ‘property manager’ in person.”
It felt natural for the association to reach out to Crime Stoppers of Houston, a community partner. Both organizations also work with Clear Channel Outdoor, which jumped at the opportunity to donate advertising space, says Hale, through six traditional printed billboards in the greater Houston area—four in English and two in Spanish. Clear Channel also provided 32 digital billboards in suburban areas, plus 15 poster boards on surface streets, also in both languages. The message—which includes a link to har.com/tips to help consumers avoid rental scams—has also appeared in HAR’s own Sunday print ad in the Houston Chronicle.
Rental scams aren’t new, but “what seems to have exacerbated the problem more recently is the limited inventory.”
Including ads in Spanish was important says Hale, because scammers tend to target the Spanish-speaking community. “There is a natural language barrier in some cases, or the person may not know how a rental transaction is supposed to work,” he says. “Many in the Spanish-speaking community are also less likely to report to authorities that a crime occurred. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 38% of the population of the Houston MSA speaks Spanish in the home, which highlights the importance of communicating in Spanish whenever possible.”
HAR directs victims to report scams to the Federal Trade Commission or the Texas Attorney General’s Office. The campaign is set to go through the end of 2022.