This week’s prize for Raleigh’s Most Heartless Slug goes to the yet-unnamed crook who cheated Valerie Thorpe, a mother of three in a jam.
She might never get back her stolen $1,700, but Thorpe, the state attorney general and I offer you this warning: Beware of fake landlords renting houses on Craigslist.
“We’re going to be on the street,” said Thorpe, 35, “thanks to the thief who took my money.”
Thorpe needed housing quick. She’s getting divorced. She had an April 4 deadline to move before her rental house goes on the market. So she scanned Craigslist, the mostly free online classified service that offers deals on everything from iguanas to commemorative Dale Earnhardt plates.
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The house on Sahalee Way, off New Bern Avenue in far East Raleigh, sounded like a score: three bedrooms, two and a half baths. So she called the potential landlord, who gave her the code to a lockbox on the door. After visiting, Thorpe filled out a rental application, signed a lease and paid rent plus deposit through a Wal-Mart moneygram.
She and the supposed owner spoke only on the phone – she knows this should have sent up a red flag – and when she arrived at the house, her new landlord never showed up with a key. When she called the number on a sign posted on the lawn, Thorpe told me, the people at American Homes 4 Rent were mystified. They had no record of Thorpe or the man who posted the fake ad.
“It was my stupidity,” she said.
Actually, the trick played on Thorpe is an increasingly common scam. The AG’s Consumer Protection Division received 17 such complaints last year and six so far in 2016. Common tactics include requiring wire payments – which Craigslist discourages in all transactions – and sending potential renters to a credit report site so the scammers can get hold of Social Security numbers.
“Rental fraudsters find information on properties that have been listed for sale elsewhere, create fake rental listings on websites like Craigslist, and then pose as the owners when potential tenants reply,” read the AG’s 2015 warning. “A Winston-Salem area consumer recently reported paying $1,000 to an online scammer who advertised a rent-to-own home deal on Craigslist. The consumer replied to the ad, signed a contract and made a payment, only to learn that the scammer didn’t really own the property.”
Thorpe reported the scam to police, and the case is being investigated. She told me that when she reported it to American Homes 4 Rent, they informed her that the same house had been scammers’ bait 12 times before. I called American Homes, left a message, sent an email and didn’t hear back.
I can identify with Thorpe’s plight. She’s going through a divorce, and she needed a new place quickly. I can think of a few times I’ve moved to new city to start a new job and signed on to a rental deal that I might have turned down with time to properly look around.
The thing that boggles me about this ripoff is the scammer had the lockbox code. I checked with Triangle MLS, a regional listing service, and not only do they not post rentals on Craigslist, they won’t give out the code to anyone who isn’t an MLS subscriber. To hear Thorpe tell it, her scammer just called up and asked for it. A code can also be gotten via text message if you log on to the American Homes 4 Rent site. I tried it and got a five-digit PIN sent to my phone, but it wouldn’t open the door when I visited Sahalee Way.
The bottom line, I guess, is caveat double emptor when dealing with Craigslist. And if there’s an honest landlord out there looking to help out a swindled mother, let us know.
What to watch out for
When browsing for homes for rent or sale online, look out for these warning signs:
▪ The advertised price is significantly lower than similar properties in the area.
▪ The listing says the owners will be gone for years and want someone to care for their home.
▪ You’re told you can only look in the windows of the property, not go inside.
▪ You’re asked to pay money up front by wire transfer or prepaid debit card, and you may be asked to send the money overseas.
▪ You’re told that keys are with the property owner and will be sent once the contract is signed and the deposit paid.
Source: N.C. attorney general