Avoiding Online Property Scams Completely (Interview with Fireball Approves)

I had the privilege of interviewing Steven Paulsen of Fireball Approves, an identity verification service for scam prevention. Below you’ll find the video of the interview, and Paulsen’s answers to my questions about avoiding online property scams.

Video Interview with Steven Paulsen of Fireball Approves

Questions and Answers About Online Property Scams

1. Let’s go back in time. Why did you start fighting scams in the first place?

Paulsen’s sister, Tammy Sorrento (founder of Fireball Approves) found a great deal on a Florida vacation rental. Paulsen works in real estate, and he was skeptical about it. The person that Sorrento was communicating with about the rental started changing terms, asking that money be sent somewhere else, changing the email address, etc. Sorrento, who’s also a private investigator, looked into it and discovered she was dealing with a scammer. She took it personally and decided to start Fireball Approves to protect consumers from scams.

2. What are the most common scams you deal with?

Vacation rentals and student housing.

3. On which sites and apps are these scams most frequently occurring? Are there certain sites or apps you recommend avoiding, or that you recommend using?

Paulsen says all sites and apps are prone to scammers, because many allow anyone to add a listing, with little or no verification. He calls Craigslist “the wild, wild West” because anyone can put anything on it without verification.

4. Are there certain people that are more likely to be scammed than others?

Paulsen says anyone can be a victim. He says those who take things at face value without asking questions are more likely to fall victim. People who are more trusting by nature, who don’t research, are more likely to fall victim.

5. What are the top red flags that should make a person suspect a scam?

Paulsen says one red flag is when the person you’re dealing with asks you to transact outside the platform. He notes that Craigslist is an exception, because transactions are supposed to happen outside Craigslist.

He says another red flag is when the person you’re dealing with asks you to send money before you can see the property.

How To Avoid Online Property Scams

6. What should a person do when they realize they’re being scammed?

Paulsen says you should definitely not send any money! He suggests using Fireball Approves, which can verify property ownership for a nominal fee ($19).

7. Any advice for someone who has already been scammed? Who should they contact for help?

Paulsen advises getting the police involved, especially if you paid the scammer. He also says you can ask Fireball Approved to get involved. He notes that, unfortunately, once you’ve been scammed, there’s only so much that can be done. He says credit card companies probably can’t help much, because you probably used PayPal or cash, and once the scammer receives your money, they close their account and move on to scam someone else.

For these reasons, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

8. Are there methods of payment that are safer to use than others?

Not really, according to Paulsen. He says payment services focus on sending money, not stopping scams.

9. Do you think it’s necessary for people to follow the news on all the latest scams, or is it enough to understand the principles of avoiding scams?

Paulsen states that yes, you absolutely need to stay informed. The Fireball Approves Facebook page and website share stories and articles to educate the public to prevent scams. Paulsen says scammers constantly change their techniques, so you need to stay updated.

Scary scam stories resonate with people, and help them remember how to avoid scams better than a list of principles.

Paulsen says that just as people have been educated over time how to avoid email scams, they need to learn how to avoid scams related to vacation rentals and other items.

10. How can parents ensure their kids don’t fall prey to scams?

Paulsen says kids should absolutely know how to avoid scams, and that knowledge will serve them well throughout their lives.

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11. How can people best help their elderly relatives and friends avoid scams?

Paulsen says that it depends on how tech-savvy the elderly people are. He says if they’re not very tech-savvy, it may be wise to have someone more tech-savvy assist. Paulsen points out that if the seller is asking for sensitive info, such as Social Security numbers, or leads them outside the trusted platform, there’s cause for concern and further research.

Paulsen notes that Fireball Approves can help anyone regardless of age, tech-savviness, or familiarity with the sites and apps used for renting and buying property.

12. You’ve observed online scams over the last few years. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about people’s ability to avoid online scams in the years ahead?

Paulsen says scams aren’t going away, and they’re going to increase in complexity and dollar value, which is why he wants to keep educating people to avoid scams.

13. Fireball Approves does work in private investigations. That has probably taught you a few things about digital security and privacy, beyond avoiding scams. Any advice you want to share to help people protect themselves online?

Tammy Sorrento, founder of Fireball Approves, is a licensed investigator. Paulsen focuses on real estate. He says you need to protect your information (address, Social Security number, account numbers, etc.). He says you can’t completely prevent something negative from happening, but you can reduce the risk.

14. Do you have any other warnings, advice, or encouragement you’d like to share before we conclude?

Paulsen recommends learning from the tips and tricks that Fireball Approves shares, regardless of whether you use their service.

Additional Resources

What You Should Do

  1. Educate yourself about online scams. At a minimum, learn the principles of scam avoidance. If you want to go further, you can follow the resources that share the latest scams.
  2. Be cautious when renting or buying property online. Watch for suspicious details and behavior. Ask questions until you’re satisfied with the answers. Research to independently verify what the seller says.
  3. Protect your personal information (address, Social Security number, account numbers, etc.). Be extremely careful about who you share it with, and how.
  4. Don’t send any personal info or money until you’re sure the listing is legitimate, and that you’re communicating with the owner.
  5. If at any point you’re not confident that you’re dealing with the true owner, consider having Fireball Approves verify ownership.
  6. Teach your family and friends how to avoid online scams. Help them avoid falling prey!
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