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Photo via Bob Sullivan
Kelly Kane. Photo via Bob Sullivan

Anyone who’s tried using the Internet to rent an apartment knows it’s a cesspool of scams and fake listings. But Kelly Kane found out this weekend that con artists are getting aggressive and vindictive. After she called out a would-be con artist on a fake ad, her cell phone number was plastered as the contact across hundreds of ads on Trulia, a real estate website recently acquired by Zillow. Kane’s phone was ringing off the hook for more than 24 hours before she was able to get the bogus listings pulled down.

Kane, who started actively looking for an apartment in Massachusetts after the ceiling in her current pad collapsed, didn’t need the extra frustration.

“I’m guessing it was for spite,” Kane said. “(Sunday) my phone has rang about 20 times from states all over the U.S. with people responding to these sketchy ads. Sad thing is, I spoke with some of the people and one woman said she was so sick of dealing with these scams and made it sound like she’s had several she’s dealt with.”

Kane spent the better part of the weekend trying to reach Trulia, even Tweeting at the firm three times.

“Please contact me, my phone number is being used in fraudulent posts for rentals on your site!” she wrote initially. Then later, “Hey @trulia if you have as much #fraud going on as I’m seeing, maybe you should have people working on the weekend.”

Monday morning, Kane called and Tweeted at Trulia, and – after another estimated 25 pesky calls — got the fraudulent listings with her number removed.

“Thank you for notifying Trulia regarding a user posting fraudulently listed rentals using your phone number,” read an email sent to her from Trulia’s help center. “The listings have been removed and the user account has been blocked. We are actively working to filter out fraudulent listings from our site and appreciate your patience as we continually refine our process.”

Kane’s not alone in finding herself in the cross-hairs of a vindictive con artist. There are several other complaints about the phenomenon on Trulia’s message boards.

“Someone put my cell phone number down on his listing trulia is part of this scam?” reads one note, posted January 23. “(I’ve) emailed and waited on hold for 2 hours.”

Trulia spokesman Matt Fregal told me the firms takes fraud “very seriously,” using both software tools and manual review by staff to remove fraudulent listings.

He said the firm didn’t help Kane immediately because her initial Twitter pleas were unclear.

“The tweet from Ms. Kane over the weekend did not indicate she needed assistance. When she specified an issue via twitter on Monday we responded within an hour and customer service contacted her that morning to address her issue,” he said.

Scams on real estate listings are nothing new, of course. Craigslist has been plagued with them for years, and Trulia’s own website contains multiple warnings about listings that take would-be renters or buyers for a ride. Usually, the scammer copies a real listing to make a fake post, and when consumers call, they are told a convoluted story explaining why the “landlord” can’t immediately show off the home. Some are even advised to drive past the not-really-for-rent apartment. The end game is to get a consumer to send money or personal information without ever having seen the inside of the place, a sure tipoff that something is wrong.

Hassling consumers by posting their cell phone numbers on fake ads, effectively causing a denial of service attack on apartment-hunters’ phones, is a new level of cruel, however.

“I really have some bad karma these days,” Kane lamented. “The other day my friend who is in her 40s was talking about the easy days when people responded to newspaper listings…wouldn’t that be nice?”

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