Fact Check: Posts About Missing Teenager Brandon Smith Are Rent-To-Own Scam

Fact Check

  • by: Uliana Malashenko
Fact Check: Posts About Missing Teenager Brandon Smith Are Rent-To-Own Scam Scam

Did a teenager named Brandon Smith go missing on February 28, 2023, in multiple American cities simultaneously? No, that's not true: Lead Stories analysis shows that a series of social media posts about a boy and his dog has characteristics of a scam campaign aimed at collecting people's personal information. One of the earliest posts said the youth had gone missing in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Local police told Lead Stories they had no information about the incident at the time of writing. By then, the entry had already been edited to advertise an obscure real estate website. The exact same posts stating that the same person went missing appeared in other localities, including Middle Point, Ohio, and Cole County, Missouri.

The story has appeared in posts on Facebook, including this version purportedly from Ohio on February 28, 2028. The caption said:

HELP!!! #Middlepoint
My son Brandon Smith took off this morning with our dog hank. He is autistic and has been missing for eight hours if anyone sees him please PM me please re-post on any sites.I already contacted police.

This is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:

Screen Shot 2023-02-28 at 10.25.57 AM.png(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Tue Feb 28 15:25:57 2023 UTC)

Similar posts appeared in many local groups on Facebook. The wording was identical but geotags indicating the location were different. At times, pictures used to draw attention varied as well. Here is an example from Cole County, Missouri:

Screen Shot 2023-02-28 at 9.57.10 AM.png

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Tue Feb 28 14:57:10 2023 UTC)

What happened to one of the earliest posts of this type from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, offers an explanation. As the edit history shows, the content of the entry published early in the morning of February 26, 2023, was replaced by rent-to-own program advertisements by the end of the same day:

Screen Shot 2023-02-28 at 9.55.57 AM.png

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Tue Feb 28 14:55:57 2023 UTC)

The Lancaster City Bureau of Police told Lead Stories that as of this writing they did not post anything about an allegedly missing boy named Brandon Smith on their official social media accounts and that they have no information about such an incident.

The advertised property was not anywhere near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. According to a Zillow poster, it is located nearly 600 miles away in Port Huron, Michigan, and was sold nine months before the post's publishing date:

Screen Shot 2023-02-28 at 11.29.56 AM.png

(Sources: Facebook screenshot taken on Tue Feb 28 16:27:10 2023 UTC; Zillow screenshot taken on Tue Feb 28 16:20:40 2023 UTC; composite image by Lead Stories)

The Brandon Smith ads follow the template of real estate scam posts on Facebook previously documented by Lead Stories:posts pair an alarming or heart-wrenching claim with a compelling image to catch people's attention -- missing children or aging adults, injured animals, injured people in hospital beds and sex trafficking tactics -- to drive engagement.

Once a post has garnered sufficient attention, the content switches to push a deceptive real estate advertisement. The wording and images of these eye-catching posts, typically seen on local Facebook "yard sale" pages," are frequently identical, even when the offered property is located in different cities, regions of the U.S., or countries.

Commonly, such posts use links that lead to landing pages with disclaimers or false promises and contact information requests that can be used to gather personal data, including financial information, from people who follow the trails.

The link from the new version of the Brandon Smith post led to a page that did not contain any information about an entity operating it. The only two clickable buttons would redirect users to a different website, RTOAuthority.com, which states in its Privacy section that it's a business based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The same section also says the website collects different types of data about people, including their Social Security numbers:

Screen Shot 2023-02-28 at 11.58.03 AM.png

(Source: RTOAuthority screenshot taken on Tue Feb 28 16:58:03 2023 UTC)

The Terms of Use section contains a disclaimer saying the company is not willing to accept any responsibility for the information on its website:

Screen Shot 2023-02-28 at 12.02.59 PM.png

(Source: RTOAuthority screenshot taken on Tue Feb 28 16:58:03 2023 UTC)

The section continued:

Screen Shot 2023-02-28 at 12.03.20 PM.png

(Source: RTOAuthority screenshot taken on Tue Feb 28 17:03:20 2023 UTC)

According to the ICANN domain lookup tool, the RTOauthority.com website has been functioning since August 9, 2021, and its registration is set to expire in August 2023.

The post about a missing boy from a local group in Middle Point, Ohio, was flipped in a similar fashion, as seen in its edit history tab:

Screen Shot 2023-02-28 at 4.04.18 PM.png

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Tur Feb 28 21:04:18 2023 UTC)

The new version of the post advertised questionable loan services and also contained a link to a rent-to-own group on Facebook:

Screen Shot 2023-02-28 at 4.56.29 PM.png

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Tue Feb 28 21:56:29 2023 UTC)

Other variations of the claim spotted in the same Middle Point group used a different boy's name or discussed a missing pet instead of a person:

Screenshot 2023-02-28 at 3.58.42 PM.png

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Tue Feb 28 20:58:42 2023 UTC)

Screen Shot 2023-02-28 at 5.15.31 PM.png

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Tue Feb 28 22:15:31 2023 UTC)

The post from Cole County, Missouri, was also flipped to promote a rent-to-own website:

Screen Shot 2023-02-28 at 5.14.08 PM.png

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Tue Feb 28 22:14:08 2023 UTC)

The Federal Trade Commission warns consumers about the dangers of rent-to-own offers:

... these deals can be risky -- and even flat-out scams. Sometimes people find out:

* the 'seller' doesn't really own the property

* the owner hasn't paid property taxes

* the house is in terrible shape, or has issues like lead or asbestos

* promised fixes aren't made after a contract is signed

* the house is getting foreclosed on

Even with legitimate rent-to-own deals, the devil is in the details. You might have to pay upfront fees and higher monthly payments than if you were renting. In some deals, if you miss a payment, the deal is off. If you do make it to the end, you might find you're locked into paying more than the home is now worth, or that you can't qualify for a mortgage to finish paying off the house.

Lead Stories has debunked multiple social media scam campaigns of this type. Some examples can be found here, here, here, here, here and here.

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  Uliana Malashenko

Uliana Malashenko is a New York-based freelance writer and fact checker.

Read more about or contact Uliana Malashenko

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