OF ALL THE THINGS that can go wrong on moving day, few could be worse than arriving at your new home to find another family already living there. Then again, in today's Darwinian housing market, worse things do indeed occur.
Like when a devious foreclosure agent tried to trick a Fairfax County teenager into handing over her family's house keys. Or when a "landlord" collecting security deposits and rent turned out to be an impostor with no legal claim to the property whatsoever.
In the past 18 months, the foreclosure debacle has pushed tens of thousands of area residents into the rental market, many with crippled credit and a desperate need for housing. Waiting for them is a new cast of swindlers, cheats and real estate sharks ready to prey on the weak and needy. Scams of various stripes are thriving in the foreclosure mess and flourishing at the margins of landlord-tenant laws.
Rental scams have generally been more of an urban problem, but the high incidence of foreclosure in the Washington region's suburbs and the relative lack of tenants' rights organizations there have helped create areas of vulnerability in such places as Prince William County. Opportunities are rife: The county and the adjacent cities of Manassas and Manassas Park have tallied 7,672 foreclosures this year through November, according to court records, up from 3,344 in 2007 and 282 the year before.
Many of those homes are bank-owned and vacant, and investors have been buying them at deep discounts and converting them into rental properties. But houses that remain vacant present some of the ripest targets for fraud, officials said.