Rental Fraud Finds Home Online in Colorado
Scammers put ads on Craigslist for properties owned by someone else
By Margaret Jackson Denverpost.com
With the economy forcing an increasing number of people to rent homes, scams are proliferating online, particularly on Craigslist.com.
Real-estate brokers are seeing more of the homes they have listed for sale pop up as rentals on the online classified site. Potential renters are showing up at homes telling the owners they are responding to an ad on Craigslist. And in one instance, a couple moved into a home, unknown to its off-site owner, after responding to a fraudulent ad on Craigslist.
“I’ve had sellers call me and ask why their property is for lease on Craigslist,” said Dee Chirafisi of Kentwood City Properties.
Her colleague Bill Verdon recently discovered a young couple living in his Curtis Park rental property.
Verdon had not listed his property for sale or lease, but it had been vacant for about two weeks when he discovered the locks had been changed and people were living there.
Lauren Fordyce and Adrian Bell told police they had rented the townhouse through a business called Associated Realtor Co. on Craigslist. The lease agreement and all the paperwork were completed over the Internet, and the couple never met anyone face-to-face.
Fordyce told police they paid $1,390 to the company through the PayPal online payment service to cover the first and last month’s rent. The lease was to be month-to-month, and the couple accessed the house using a key in the lockbox, to which they were given a combination.
When police called the 800 number the couple provided for Associated Realtor, they were told the company had a contract with Verdon and it would be faxed over.
The police never received the fax; when they called back, the number had been disconnected, according to a police report.
Bell told The Denver Post the money he and Fordyce paid to Associated Realtor had been returned, but he referred all other questions to Fordyce, who did not return phone calls.
Kate Streiff, a physical-therapy student from New York, used Craigslist to find a short- term rental property so she could spend a summer in Denver working.
“I was looking for a three- month lease, and most apartment complexes don’t offer that,” she said.
“Really, the only choice left was looking at Craigs list for anybody subletting.”
She found a condo in Larimer Place downtown and contacted the man who claimed to be leasing it.
“I talked with him for a couple weeks, and everything seemed fine,” she said.
Both parties signed a lease, and Streiff sent a $500 deposit and an $800 check for the first month’s rent. The scammer cashed them, and Streiff never heard from him again.
A similar scam that surfaced in Denver last year required potential renters to wire money to Africa before having a key mailed to them.
Streiff said she has gotten no help from the law enforcement agencies she has filed reports with, including the Denver Police, the Federal Trade Commission and the Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3, which is a partnership between the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center and the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
“Every jurisdiction says it’s not their problem and (to) go talk to someone else,” Streiff said.
Complaints of online crime hit a record high in 2008, according to IC3. The center received 275,284 complaints, a 33 percent increase over the previous year.
The total dollar loss linked to online fraud was $265 million, about $25 million more than in 2007. The average individual loss amounted to $931.
Authorities believe false ads are used to trick potential renters into releasing personal information that can be used to steal their identities, as well as to collect cash deposits.
Denver Police spokesman Sonny Jackson said people looking online for rental properties should be wary of transactions that are handled only through the mail or a PayPal account.
“It’s extremely hard to catch (scammers) because it’s all done over the Internet,” Jackson said. “It’s basically identity theft and fraud. You’re able to steal someone’s identity off the Internet and do the transaction via mail with no face-to-face meeting. It’s an invisible-man crime.”
Margaret Jackson: 303-954-1473 or firstname.lastname@example.org