Anatomy of a Rental Scam

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On a regular basis we get contacted by people looking for rental properties on CraigsList. The VAST majority of time they are calling us about properties that are not listed by our brokerage. (Why? People Google addresses and this site comes up frequently in those searches. We have info on almost every Phoenix home listed for sale, even if we aren’t the listing brokerage.)

Many times the “For Rent” listing on CraigsList is legit. A *lot* of people look for rental properties on CraigsList so a *lot* of landlords and property management companies advertise rental properties there. Makes perfect sense.

Sadly however, there are scammers out there attempting to take advantage of people — more precisely, attempting to steal money from them by claiming they have a rental property for lease when they don’t.

Last week, we were contacted about a rental listing on CraigsList. As is usual, it wasn’t our listing. The person interested in the property expressed concern that the email address used on the CraigsList ad was different than anything she found elsewhere on the internet. She thought it might be a scam.

Turns out, she was correct.

I’ve always been curious how these scams work, so I thought it might be educational (and yes, fun too) to see what would happen if I replied to the ad as a potential tenant.

What follows are the actual email exchanges I had with the scammer.

OF NOTE: This post is not intended to slam CraigsList in any way. As already mentioned, there are many legitimate rental ads on CraigsList. And CraigsList does a good job warning people of these scammers. At the top of every CraigsList rental add is this statement, highlighted, and in red text:

Avoid scams and fraud by dealing locally! Beware any arrangement involving Western Union, Moneygram, wire transfer, or a landlord/owner who is out of the country or cannot meet you in person. More info

That “more info” link contains several “common-sense rules” to avoid being scammed, including three rules that if ANY ONE of them were followed, this particular scam would never work:

  • DEAL LOCALLY WITH FOLKS YOU CAN MEET IN PERSON - follow this one rule and avoid 99% of scam attempts on craigslist.
  • NEVER WIRE FUNDS VIA WESTERN UNION, MONEYGRAM or any other wire service – anyone who asks you to do so is a scammer.
  • DO NOT RENT HOUSING WITHOUT SEEING THE INTERIOR, OR PURCHASE EXPENSIVE ITEMS SIGHT-UNSEEN - in all likelihood that housing unit is not actually for rent and that cheap item does not exist.
Sadly, there must be people that don’t heed these common-sense rules CraigsList provides, and fall victim to rental scams like this.
Here is my first email response to the ad:

Hi! I’m interested in the property you have listed for rent on CraigsList – at XXXX West XXXX Drive
Can you tell me more about it?  How much is security deposit, length of lease. Is the house also listed for sale?
Any additional info you can provide would be appreciated!

Within a couple of hours, this was the response I received:

Hello,

We are pleased that you have an interest in our house, Our lovely home is still available for lease and we want responsible adults/family who are neat and also believe that they have what it takes to take care of our house as if it were theirs. My wife and I initially had it up for sale but had a change of mind in leasing it out ourselves because the agent that was in charge of our rental property was asking too much of an agent fee and also making it difficult for people who cannot afford the rent, stay away from renting my house.

The reason why our house is up for lease is because I got transferred from my place of work to HOUSTON,TX , I will be away with my family for at least 4 to 5 years because of the love I have for them, I have decided not to sell our house and also assuring them that we only have few years to spend here and will be willing to lease it out to person/family who is willing to assure us of taking absolute care of our home and pay their rent on time. I will start by telling you more in regards me and my family. I have a daughter named Leslie (20yrs) who attends University of HOUSTON,TX as a medical student, she has a lot going for her and she is also down to earth in all that she does to keep us happy and when she is back home on vacation, she also assist her mom in the house work when am at work. I work as a Robotic Programmer & Welder/Fitter here in HOUSTON,TX  and got married to a lovely wife who is a member of Joyce Meyer Ministries .

We will be very pleased if we can find the right tenant to rent our home, a person who is a clean freak and does not tolerate anything that has to do with dirt… we also would like to know more about you and your family, your renting experience and how long and when you plan moving into our home. These 3 bedrooms and 2 baths home are very specious and neat.2,631 sqft

Monthly Fee ; $950

Security Deposit: $950

Pets Allowed: YES

Available :Available Now for move in.

So pls get back to me today.

I await your reply ASAP.

The rental fee is inclusive with utilities and my home available as at this moment.

God Bless You.

Note there is no mention of payment method, but they do address my question asking if the home is currently listed for sale (which it IS). Damn those real estate agents asking for too much in fees!

My response:

Thank you for the additional information. My wife and I both have good jobs and credit, and would take good care of your home. We’ve lived in the Phoenix area for several years and our landlord is raising the rent on us a lot, despite that we’ve never had a late payment. Our lease here ends on Nov 30, so we’re looking to move very soon.

We have two children, ages 18 and 14. The 18 year old is moving out on his own, and the 14 year old is in her senior year of high school and will be attending a local university, but living on campus next year. So by next August, it will just be my wife and I living in the home.

How can we make arrangements to see the house?

I’m a little concerned though as I think this home is located in an age restricted area? Is that correct?

I thought maybe saying that we had a 14 year old senior in high school might make them question the validity of my inquiry. And the home IS in an age-restricted community, so I was interested to hear how they would respond to that…

Hello,

We are very pleased that you wrote us regarding our home. I also had other people writing me requesting that they rent my property less than a year which I do not support. I want anyone renting my house to at least rent for a year or more. We have also made it known to anyone renting our home that our objectives are making sure that the house is kept clean and neat. Utilities include Electricity, water, gas while appliances includes refrigerator, Stove, microwave, dishwasher, Washer/Dryer, Garbage etc…. I initially wrote you that we had plans of selling our house but had a change in mind to lease it out since we will not be staying more than 5 years.

I really know that God has lead me to a wonderful family like yours, as we are planning on selling our home initially thinking that no one can take care of our home when we are gone but with the help of my wife, we are able to think properly before selling our home and have found out that renting it will be the best option for us as we plan on coming back to our lovely home. You have also said a lot that pleases us and we have also seen how wonderful you and your family can be when you move into our home. My concerns has been solved by you and we believe that all you said should be done the right way in ensuring that we trust you of becoming our tenant. We also plan on making our tenant family friends when they move in.

If all arrangement goes well, we will have the entrance keys and other relevant document in a hard copy paper shipped to your present home address for you to move in at your convenient date. Our home is beautiful and need no amendments. All you have to do is bring in your belongings and maintain the utilities for us. We also have Internet cable in our home as we speak, and will like you to take absolute care of our house when you move in. As soon as you get back to me I will be attaching a rental application form for you to fill and get back to us with your information so that we can know you better.

God Bless You.

Hmmm, the 14 year old senior didn’t seem to phase them, and there was absolutely zero response to my questions of how we might be able to see the home, and whether or not is is located in an age-restricted community. But hey, we’ll be friends!

My next email follows. Total elapsed time since first contact = 15 hours.

Please send the rental application form. We are interested in a long term lease. In fact, if we were to pay for an entire year of rent up front (and possibly two years), would it be possible to get a reduction in the rent payment?

How can we see the house? Is it in an age-restricted community?

The almost immediate response was:

My family and I are presently here in Houston, TX and will be very pleased if we have the opportunity in showing you around my house without you asking, but as you can see we are not around to do so as we have made all arrangement base on trust in ensuring that we have a Christian and reliable home take possession of our rental property while we are gone. If you can take a tour to see the exterior part of my house and its environment that will be lovely as we have set aside a way in getting the keys and other relevant duplicate document shipped to your present home address once you have been approved as our tenant. Hope you understand where we are coming from.

So no, we can’t see the home other than via a drive-by. And still no answer to the question about the home being in an age-restricted community. My guess is they have no idea what that means, so they are ignoring it. Also note they failed to address my question about a reduced rent by paying in advance. This one surprised me as I thought they would jump all over getting a larger payment. And still no mention of how payment is to be made. No rental application was attached.

Several hours later, I received this email:

Hello,

Attached is the Rental Application form, fill it and get back to us with it the application form via email asap, I can see your willingness in leasing our home and hope we will never have regrets in leasing our home to you.I want you to also know that we will let you stay in our home till the period of time you wish to as long as you pay up your rent on time.  We also want you to know that the rent fee covers the utilities, you can use them and take proper care of our home.

All we ask for is making sure you fill the rental application form properly so that we can approve you as our tenant, we will also advise you secure our home by paying for a refundable security deposit so that we can take our house off market and let other renters not to contact us anymore for the same house you are about renting.

Here are the contents of the package that will be shipped to your present home address via a courier service upon receiving your application form filled by you.

1) Entrance and the rooms Keys

2) Paper/Permanent House form (Containing your reference details)

3) The duplicate of the House documented file.

4) Payment Receipt.

Remain Blessed.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Although they’ve completely blown of my multiple questions about age restriction and paying in advance, I went ahead and filled out the “application”. Here is what I sent them:

Now hopefully it is readily apparent to anyone out there that you should never send potential scammers personal information. (I’ve also been using a throw-away email address throughout this entire process.) So I took a little liberty with the rental app.

My name is not Jay T. Leno.
All phone numbers are actually to pay phones on the ASU campus.
My date of birth is not 6/31/1964. In fact, there are not 31 days in June…
My children are not named “Skippy” and “Betty Lou”. And they weren’t born in 1976 and 2009. Recall I told the scammer my kids were 18 and 14, not 35 and 2…
I have two dogs, not 3. And I do not own a python or miniature horse.
44 N. 32nd St is not my current address. That’s the address of a local “Gentleman’s Club” (And yes, I had to Google that).
My landlord, if I had one, would almost definitely not be named John Q. Shyster.
My date of employment did not start on 4/31/2003. And there aren’t 31 days in April either.
My CPA’s name is not “Willie Bethere”.
I don’t own a 2003 Lotus Elise. In fact, the Elise isn’t excepted to be available until 2015.
And finally, my father is not Dick Cheney.

Oh, I didn’t sign the application either.

I didn’t hear from the scammers for 24 hours. At this point I figured maybe I went a little over the top on the rental application…

Then I got this email from them:

Hello Jay,

My wife and I are going through your application now and as soon as we find it satisfactory we will immediately approve you as our tenant and email you at once. If all goes well we will get the signed hard copy Lease/Rental agreement along with entrance keys shipped to your present home address upon receiving the security deposit and the 1st Month rent. I will also like to inform you that we will be confirming your present address too so that when we get the package ship, we are rest assured that you receive it without getting it shipped to a wrong address you have not provided in your application form. I will email a copy of your application to my Attorney for records and confirmation, as soon as we confirm you as the right tenant to move into our home, I will allow my Wife accept the funds for safe keeping. I will email you immediately we are through with our findings after going through your application. Hope to read from you soon.

Remain Blessed

Well crap, they are going to confirm my address? I suspect Christie’s Cabaret won’t have a clue who I am… And now the wife is entering the picture. She’s going to accept the funds — but still no word on how those funds will be collected.

About a day later, I got this email:

Hello David,

My wife and I have gone through your application and have found it satisfactory, so we will say at this point “Congratulations” you are now our tenant and we want you to always pay your Monthly rental fee on time to avoid any form of embarrassment. My Wife will be receiving the refundable security deposit along with the 1st Month rent fee paid to her through a wire transfer so as to secure our home for you and take it off market which automatically makes no one contact us for the same house you are renting. She will also be signing on the Lease/Rental Agreement in a hard copy paper before shipping the keys along with the hard copy paperwork to your present home address. Can you please re confirm your present home address? And upon receiving the deposits we will secure our home for you and take it off market and get the keys shipped to your present home address along with a tracking # to let you know the exact time you will be receiving the package. Please do confirm your present home address by sending it again through the email so that we do not make mistake when shipping to you. When do you plan moving into our home when you receive the keys; Let me know immediately so that we can make arrangement on your move in date. Get back to me for payment information.

Remain Blessed

My response:

David? Who the hell is David and why is he approved as your tenant and not me? I was so excited to get your email, hoping you had studied our application and found it acceptable. Now I am sad because David, and not I, Jay Leno, am getting the home. *sniff*

Wire transfer? Why can’t I just send a check, assuming I get the home and not this David character.

Their immediate response:

The David was a mistype the David was my wife brothers name so i was also communicating with him yesterday also so you have nothing to worry about cos everything is perfectly intact. payment will be made via wire transfer for now so the rest payment then will be made via check.

I didn’t respond for two days. Got this:

Am still waiting to hear from you, knowing if you have make the payment for your move in.

My response:

Holy shizzle!! Western Union wants to charge me $110 to do the wire transfer. Why can’t I just overnight you a personal check? I also have cash. I could pay you in small unmarked bills. I should send those to the IRS, but I need a place to live first.

That $110 fee really is what Western Union would charge. Seems.. outrageous.

The next day the scammer sent this:

I tried calling you but no response. i tried to tell you to reduct the transfer charges from the money and after this payment then your next month rent will be made via check or any other means. but for now you have to make the payment via western union so get back to me once you make the payment. so that i will be able to process the shipment of the keys and document to you asap, cos has we speak now the keys and doucment are ready for shipment so once the payment is been confirm shipment will take place immediately. Waiting to hear from you with the payment info.

So I replied:

Dear God man, don’t EVER call me. The police and IRS monitor my phone, and I don’t want either of them to know that I am moving — that is why I didn’t answer. This needs to stay between you and me. You don’t work for the police or IRS do you?

Scammer response:

Have you make the payment yet? Please send tracking number western union provide. I tell you before I work as a Robotic Programmer & Welder/Fitter here in HOUSTON,TX and got married to a lovely wife who is a member of Joyce Meyer Ministries. Not work for IRS. We need payment made.

My response:

Oh, that’s right. I forgot about that. Do you work on oil rigs? They have a lot of those in Houston. Hey I remember you have a 20 year old daughter going to school in Houston. Is she cute? My son gets lonely sometimes after he broke up with all his girlfriends and my wife and I have been trying to get him hooked up for months. The kid really needs some company, if you know what I mean.

Sorry about the delay on the payment. I’ve got this big ass jar of change and it takes a LONG time to count out $1900 in nickels and dimes. Though there is the occasional quarter in there too. Hey, here’s an idea. What if I just shipped you this jar of change and we call it even? There is probably $2,500 in there, but it’s such a hassle to count out it’d be easier to just ship it all to you. What do you think? And let me know if your daughter is available for my son.

They replied a day later:

We need western union. Please take change there and use them to send wire transfer. Please hurry with payment so we can take home off market and send you keys.

Remain Blessed.

Dammit, nothing about the daughter… My response:

Well shit. I already shipped you the jar of change. Man, that was a pain in the ass. Do you know how much $2000 in nickels weighs? I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing it was at least 50 pounds. I thought the dude at the post office was going to have a hernia lifting that box. I had to pull all the quarters out to pay for the shipping. That really pissed off the people in line behind me. Anyway, you should have it in a couple of days. Can you send me the keys now? I think the IRS is on to me and I need to get out of here…

That was three days ago and I haven’t heard back yet. I think they’ve finally clued in.

Sadly, they’ll just move on to another target. After reading through this, it’s hard to imagine that people fall for this scam, but they do. It happens every day. Bottom line is, BE CAREFUL. This one actually managed to pull the real name of the home’s previous owner, adding some level of credibility to their scam. Apparently they even hijacked that person’s email account as this was displayed at the top of all their emails (in Gmail on Chrome):

Warning: The content of this message is suspicious. The sender’s account may be compromised. Beware of following links or of providing the sender with any personal information. Ignore, I trust this message  Learn more

Think folks. No one should be falling for these scams. And if you chose to toy with the scammers, don’t give them ANY real info. Apparently, you don’t need to, they’ll play along for as long as they feel they have a viable target, no matter what you tell them.

 

 

 

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About the Author
Jay Thompson

I'm a real estate broker in Phoenix, Arizona and the publisher of the Phoenix Real Estate Guy blog. I tend to drive too fast and scream at the University of Texas and Denver Broncos football teams. My two kids are smarter than most adults I know and my wife is simply amazing.

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