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Muoio Unveils Five-Bill Package Aimed at Protecting Tenants & Landlords from Increase in Rental Scams

Legislation is Part of a Multi-Faceted Approach in Conjunction with Local & County Officials

Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio unveiled a comprehensive five-bill package to protect tenants and landlords from rental scams as part of a multi-faceted approach launched by local, county and state officials on Tuesday.

Muoio detailed the bill package during a press conference – alongside Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, Trenton Police Director Ernest Parrey and Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello – where the findings of the Mercer County Fraudulent Housing Occupancy Task Force were released along with a number of proposed solutions, which include Muoio’s bill package.

“Recession-driven foreclosures left more empty homes than ever before, which helped spawn many scams that are still continuing today even after the market has begun to rebound,” said Muoio (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). “This multi-pronged approach between our bill package and the efforts of local and county officials is aimed at making sure both tenants and legitimate landlords are aware of the types of scams that can occur and empowering everyone with the tools to crack down on this illegal activity.”

Muoio noted that many rental scams occur when property owners or potential tenants misrepresent themselves or the terms and availability of a rental property. Some scammers have been known to “hijack” an actual rental or real estate listing by changing the email address or other contact information, and placing the modified advertisement on another site. In other cases, scammers have hijacked the email accounts of property owners on reputable vacation rental websites. Some scammers create listings for housing that is not for rent or does not exist, and try to lure potential renters with the promise of low rent or great amenities. The goal of these scammers is to get a person’s money before they discover the property is a “phantom” rental.

“The problem of imposter landlords is an issue that broadly affects our communities and is destructive to families and property owners alike,” added Muoio. “Throughout the country, imposter landlords steal thousands of dollars, often times through online marketplaces such as Craigslist, from unsuspecting individuals, and often target vulnerable sections of the population. As a result of these types of scams, families have lost their savings and their homes by the time the perpetrators are caught and lawful owners of residences have seen business stolen from them. This bill package aims to prevent this type of criminal activity from occurring in the first place by targeting the range of conduct of imposter landlords.”

The comprehensive, five-bill package, which was introduced on Thursday and is also sponsored by Senator Shirley Turner, aims to address many facets of fraudulent rental scams:

  • A-4288 would criminalize certain actions by “imposter landlords,” who rent out or advertise for rent residential dwellings they do not own or lawfully possess. Under this bill, any person who claims ownership or possession, or takes possession, of a residential dwelling without the permission of the lawful owner or an authorized agent of the owner, in order to rent the property out or benefit himself, would be guilty of a fourth degree criminal offense, which is typically punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to 18 months or a fine of up to $10,000, or both.
  • A-4289 would encourage purchasers of residential real property to record deeds in a timely fashion. Under the bill, a purchaser that submits a residential deed to the county for recording more than 30 days after the delivery date of the deed will be charged a late filing fee of $10 a day for each day thereafter, up to a cumulative total of $500. The bill dedicates the proceeds of these late filing fees to combatting homelessness.
  • A-4290 would require an electric public utility to notify a property owner by electronic mail, postal mail, or telephone, as determined by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, any time an account for electric public utility service on the owner’s property is opened, closed, transferred, or altered.
  • A-4291 would require the state Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs to establish and undertake a public information campaign to educate and inform consumers concerning real estate rental housing scams, including, but not limited to, the preparation, publication, and distribution of information through the division’s website, booklets, pamphlets, or other pertinent materials in both English and Spanish. The bill also requires the director to provide a toll-free telephone number for consumers to obtain additional information or make an inquiry regarding a prospective rental, landlord, or real estate agent or agency.
  • A-4292 would require all creditors that acquire title to a non-owner occupied residential property (as the result of a foreclosure sheriff’s sale or a deed in lieu of foreclosure) to provide notice of the acquisition to the municipality in which the property is located and, if applicable, the common interest community of which the property is a part.

Muoio noted that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) works to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide consumers with information to help recognize and avoid them. The FTC has developed information for consumers to learn the signs of rental listing scams, and how to report these scams. For instance, the FTC indicates that scammers may:

  • ask a potential renter to wire money as a deposit or payment of first and last month’s rent because wiring money is like giving cash – a refund cannot be made, even if the offer was a fraud;
  • require a potential renter to sign the lease before seeing the rental property, and prohibit potential renters from entering the home or apartment or charge a fee to view it; and
  • claim to be an agent for the property owner who is too busy, out of the country, or otherwise unavailable to handle the rental.