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Watermarks Prove Effective Against Real Estate Scam

2 min read

The Cooperative Arkansas Realtors Multiple Listing Services began adding watermarks to its online photos of listed homes last fall to combat scammers who were stealing the images — and subscribers are seeing positive results.  

Last year, scam artists pilfered photos of upscale homes from real estate websites to the detriment of clients such as those of Jon Underhill of Jon Underhill Real Estate in Little Rock.

The scammers posted the photographs, addresses and marketing information from the actual real estate listings online at Craigslist, advertising the houses as available for rent at steep discounts, Underhill told Arkansas Business.

Houses that would, if they were even being offered for lease, rent at between $3,000 and $4,000 per month were advertised on Craigslist at $800 per month.

“The scammers normally come out of Nigeria or whatever. They’ll present on Craigslist that they own a property in Little Rock and that they’re missionaries,” Underhill said.

The scammers claim they’re out of town for just a year or so — and they promise to mail prospective renters the house keys once they receive a deposit and the first month’s rent.

And people fall for it, Underhill said, sending off cashier’s checks to a person they’ve never met to rent homes they’ve never toured.

The scam is bad for the people who fall for it, but on Underhill’s end, it also hurts the homes’ sellers.

“It’s very alarming to the homeowner to find that their house is being offered for rent at a discounted rate,” Underhill said. “It’s certainly an invasion of their privacy, and it’s damaging. It hurts the marketing of the house.”

For example, in December 2011, scammers pirated photos of a $1.2 million house Underhill had listed.

The homeowners feared that people hoping to rent, who would never consider buying a house in the million-dollar range, would see the Craigslist ad and show up at their home, possibly endangering their children, Underhill said. So, the family took all photos of their home off of real estate websites, and reduced the marketability of their house, he said.

Craigslist hasn’t made any apparent steps to stop such scamming, Underhill said. However, Underhill hasn’t encountered the scam in about four months, and he credits the “CARMLS Inc.” watermark on online photos as part of the reason.

The watermark isn’t foolproof, he said, but it’s a permanent part of the photos and it tips off online viewers that the scammers aren’t using their own images.

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