The Craigslist ads and the emails from the alleged landlords are often full of grammatical errors, but the rental price is too good to pass up. “Only $1,200 a month for a four-bedroom View Ridge home with 1¾ baths, garage, fireplace, hardwood floors and finished basement?” Sounds like a great deal, at a time of high demand and rising rents. You gotta check it out. The phone number is never local, but a cell maybe in Chicago, or, in a recent case, Tulsa, Okla. The phony landlord usually emails that an urgent job took him out of state, so everything will have to be done long-distance. All he wants is a responsible tenant. If you fall for such a scam, you might lose hundreds, maybe several thousand dollars. A man who recently moved to Seattle says he lost about $3,500 to a scammer.
“I did my own investigating and whatnot,” says the man, who asked that his name not be used. Police are investigating, and he hopes to recover some of his money.
But he says the scammer seemed to check out, and even used a phony email that included the name of the real landlord, Irene Matalon-Munro, a retired teacher who lives in Lake Forest Park with her husband, Mike Munro, a security-risk and compliance manager. The real Irene does not have the Yahoo email address that was listed in the scam ad. An email to the scam address from The Seattle Times got no response.
Why do people fall for the scams, despite warnings posted on Craigslist and Zillow, which also runs rental ads? Doug Shadel, a former fraud investigator who’s an adviser to the Financial Fraud Research Center with the Stanford Center on Longevity (he’s also director of this state’s AARP), explains: “The slang used by con men is to get you ‘under the ether.’ You make poor decisions in a heightened emotional state. Normally, you’d say, ‘What makes you think you can get a condo in downtown Seattle for $1,000?’ That’s your rational mind thinking.” But press the right buttons, says Shadel, on a person in financial difficulties or who just can’t pass up a fantastic deal, and that rational thinking disappears.
In late June, Irene and Mike posted for rent on both Craigslist and Zillow the View Ridge home they own — a “lovely well-maintained home in a highly desirable neighborhood.” They rented to the first people who responded to their ad, asking for a more realistic $2,400 a month. The scam ad on their property also ran on Craigslist, with photos the Munros had used, plus much of the same copy. This time, the listed rent was $1,200. Besides the guy who says he lost $3,500, another one who answered the ad was Charlyne Sims, who emailed about how she and her family were looking for a rental home as the lease on their Eastside place was up.
“We have an excellent rental record, and do have landlords as references, we do pay our rent on time, and are very responsible,” she emailed to the potential landlord. The scammer emailed back:
“How are you? Thanks for the interest in my House … I only need someone that can take good care of the house at my absence because right now am not around I just secured a contract in Chicago Illinois. of which i will not be back on time. And am here with the house keys and document, I tried to look for management before i left but couldn’t get any in time. If you know that you have a good reference and a good credential you can email me back to secure and occupy my house at my absent … security deposit required which is $1,200 … Hope you are Okay with the rent fee of $1,200 … get back to me asap … ”
Says Sims, “Every fiber in me said this has to be a scam,” starting with the “fishy grammar” to the deal just sounding too good. Sims found the real phone number for the Munros and called them. The Munros ended up making a police report, which by then included details about other potential renters who had answered the scam posting. “The neighbors said they kept seeing people going around the house, looking at it from the outside,” says Irene.
Another potential renter who answered the scam ad was Jason Sykes, a Seattle attorney. The fake Irene emailed him, “Alright presently am in Chicago you can drive by and have a view at it but how can you see the inside when the key is with me here, well if you don’t mind i can email you the pictures of the inside for you to see how beautiful the inside is i hope you can understand, well kindly let me know if is okay with you. I want you to know that the money is not my main concern. Absolute care of the house is what i want when i rent it out.”
The fake Irene also emailed Sykes an application. It contained a lot of the standard questions asked of potential tenants. But the form didn’t ask for authorization for a criminal-background check or a credit check. “I’ve been renting for enough years to know that everyone asks for that. Then I began pressing them and said that I had family in Chicago and maybe they could meet them. They didn’t respond to that. Red flags went up all over the place,” says Sykes. He backed out.
Not long ago, Irene heard from the man who says he lost $3,500; he told her that he sent first and last month’s rent, a security deposit and a pet deposit, and had been promised the keys would be mailed to him “immediately.” “When no keys arrived, he realized he had been scammed. He told me, ‘I think I’m a moron,’ ” says Irene. “I told him, ‘I’m so sorry.’ ”
There seems to be a never-ending supply of Craigslist scam ads. Posted last week was a scam ad for a two-bedroom Queen Anne home — only $1,500 a month. It’s owned by Kris Gorsh- kov, a King County firefighter, and it is actually being offered at $2,495 a month. Somebody with a Tulsa, Okla., cellphone number created a fake email address using Gorshkov’s name. “Myself and my husband owns the house and also want you to know that it was due to my transfer to (Illinois) for Work, my husband is presently in OK now working with chevron oil and gas company as an offshore Eng., that why we are renting the house Property,” replied a scammer responding to an inquiry. When the cellphone listed in the mail was called, a man answered. Yes, he said, they have a Queen Anne house for rent. Then, told it was a call from a newspaper reporter, he hung up.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org