The gentleman who identified himself as Richard Peters seemed like a nice enough person. When I e-mailed him last summer about a For Rent sign in a downtown apartment, he told me he was an intern at a rehabilitation facility somewhere in West Africa, where he worked with troubled youths who had committed crimes after being abused. His reply was lengthy and exceedingly friendly.
"Hi," he wrote in 14-point Comic Sans. "How are you doing today? Thank you very much for taking your time to e-mail me. It is my sincere pleasure to write you back, and to let you know that the house you are making inquiry of is still available for move in."
OK, so he was more talkative than most landlords. In the e-mail, he went on to detail his troubles with previous tenants who had not taken care of his sought-after property on Bennett Street, and he said he distrusted realtors. Then he told me that, because he was out of the country, he would normally have a cousin in Charleston show me around the property — but alas, his cousin had recently moved to another city, so I wouldn't be able to look inside.
"You can only pass by and see how my house looks like from outside," Peters wrote, "but you must be careful with the way you patrol, in order to avoid been [sic] harassed by the neighborhood security." Wait — neighborhood security in the hospital district? And then I came to this sentence, which I read a dozen times and could never quite decipher: "As for me, I think it will be perfect to have the keys/paperwork in hand before going to check our house."
Alan Goldkin, who manages 60 rental properties in the tri-county area, says the e-mail bore all the signs of a scam. He should know; he's seen more than a few rip-offs in the seven years since he started his realty company, Shelter Management.
"Well, first of all, the person's in Africa," Goldkin says. "I hate to say it, but ..." The narrative is a familiar one to him by now: A renter sees a killer deal for an apartment on Craigslist, and he writes to inquire about it, only to find out that the person claiming to own the property lives in Nigeria and requires a deposit before mailing him a key to look inside the apartment. The renter wires some money to a Western Union account in Lagos, and he never sees the key or hears from the Nigerian landlord again.
Secondly, the listed rental price was far too low for the neighborhood, and third, the response from Peters included entirely too many personal details. And then there was the matter of the odd wording and syntactical quirks, indicative of a writer who had never set foot in the United States. Goldkin says he automatically deletes most e-mails sent to his work account that shorten the word "advertisement" to "advert," a red flag for British-influenced Nigerian English. "Craigslist is a wonderful, free way of doing commerce, but it's the Wild West," Goldkin says.
As in the old West, enforcement can be tricky. Public Information Officer Charles Francis says Charleston Police Department detectives can investigate white-collar and cyber crimes, but they don't handle international cases. "If the person is in Nigeria that he sent the money to, there isn't a whole lot the police department can do," Francis says. And while it is possible to file a complaint through the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (ic3.gov), an IP address trace often leads investigators no further than an internet café.
There is such a thing as frontier justice, though. For one thing, a savvy renter can simply click the button to flag fraudulent Craigslist posts as spam. Some realtors keep an eye on websites like ScamWarners.com, which has over 8,000 posts in the Rental Scams forum (see more on page 18). Vigilante scam baiters respond to apparently fraudulent listings and post warnings on the forum about e-mail addresses that have been used by rental scammers. Some people on the message boards have sought revenge, stringing the would-be scammers along to waste their time, sometimes even coercing them to send in pictures of themselves holding signs that read "SC4M W4RN3RS."
So if someone gets suspicious about an offer from email@example.com, for example, he or she can Google Maki Mike's e-mail address and find out that he has apparently been ripping people off on HotPads.com by copying listings from the website of Kristin Walker, a legitimate realtor with Dunes Properties in Charleston.
When Walker read about one of her property listings getting aped in February, she sent a thank-you note to the person who had posted about it, a British man who goes by username Con Warner and has posted to the ScamWarners forums nearly 3,000 times since joining two years ago. Con Warner would not reveal his identity and would only say that he lived in the northeast of England. "I get death threats every day," he wrote.
Walker says the rental scams have only gotten more frequent since she started in the business three years ago. Back then, she says, maybe 10 percent of the rental listings on Craigslist were bogus. Now, she estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the ads are fake.
Alan Goldkin only knows of two instances where someone copied one of his real estate listings to carry out a fraud. One of them was for a 2,000-square-foot West Ashley house that he was trying to rent out for a close friend, insurance agent David Rosenberg, about three years ago. Goldkin put a For Rent sign in the yard and planned to rent it out for $1,400, as Rosenberg had requested.
But one day, Goldkin got a call from someone who had seen the house listed at $700 a month on Craigslist. "And I choked and I said, 'Hate to tell this to you, but no, it's kind of more like $1,400,'" Goldkin says. He found the fake listing online, and it looked convincing enough. The scammer had even gone to the trouble of looking up the owner's name in the Charleston County tax records and set up a perfectly authentic-looking e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rosenberg says he was unnerved at first when he found out someone was assuming his identity online, "but then it became comical." Right away, Goldkin reported the falsified listing to Craigslist, and then, for fun, he inquired about it in an e-mail. "I came across your ad on craigslist and am very interested!" he wrote to rosenbergdavid55. "Please tell me what to do next. Can I see it?" The same day, he got a response: "The apartment is much available for now. I want you to know that I am the owner of this apartment. But right now, I am in Africa on a Christian mission with my wife, and we have the keys with us." This part of the e-mail exchange was especially amusing: The real David Rosenberg is Jewish.
The scammer said he would mail the key to Goldkin if he received a $700 money transfer via Western Union. Goldkin feigned eagerness to rent the house, but he kept coming up with questions that would need to be answered before he sent the money over: Are the bedroom floors carpet or hardwood? Who would do maintenance work on the house while the owner was abroad? And would the rent always have to be paid via wire transfer? Eventually, the scammer became impatient, and in Rosenberg's final e-mail before losing contact, he closed with a zinger:
"We appreciate that you are doing God's work as a missionary on another continent, so we are being patient."
House hunting online requires a keen nose for fishy business. Goldkin points to the scam warning page on Craigslist, which starts with simple words of wisdom: "Deal locally with folks you can meet in person — follow this one rule and avoid 99 percent of scam attempts."
As for the friendly humanitarian with the place on Bennett Street, he never got my money. I cut our correspondence short with a quick e-mail: "My wife and I don't want to go through with this because, frankly, it sounds like a scam." And we never heard from Richard Peters again.