Rental scams commandeer real ads from Internet
Almost anything can be hijacked these days, thanks to the Internet, including advertisements for houses for rent.
And, although the risks to the property owner are minimal, according to the FBI, lured would-be renters could have money or their identity stolen by responding to the ads.
Karen Hamm of Port Orange could have been one of those victims. In need of a new place to rent, she drove past a home on Northern Road that she found on Craigslist -- a three-bedroom, two-bath, ranch-style house with a two-car garage offered for $700.
"We thought the price was a little low," Hamm said. "But we thought maybe because it's across from some apartments, that it was priced that way."
Hamm saw a real estate sign in the front yard and called the number listed there rather than responding to the Internet ad. She found out the real estate agent also happens to be the homeowner, and hadn't placed the ad -- well, at least, not that one.
Bart Teracino of Ormond Beach and his wife own the house, which is for sale and has been for months.
"We had offered it for rent, but just for a very brief period of time," Teracino said. "We decided it wasn't a good idea."
Within the couple of weeks the Teracinos home was listed as a rental, someone stole the ad -- verbiage, photos and layout -- but changed the e-mail address and lowered the rent by a couple hundred dollars.
"We wouldn't have even known about it, except for people calling my wife" because of the sign, Teracino said.
'PRESENTLY I'M NOT AROUND'
Teracino responded to the bogus ad (since removed by Craigslist) as someone other than himself.
"Bart Teracino" answered the e-mail with a form-letter response widely associated with people who post Nigerian phone numbers or who otherwise claim to be in West Africa:
"I did get your response concerning the AD I posted on Craigslist. The house is still available but presently I'm not around. I did bid for a portion of petroleum land sometimes ago in West Africa . . . "
Also included was a Nigerian phone number (234 country code) and a questionnaire asking for personal information.
A News-Journal reporter using a personal address also e-mailed "Bart Teracino" and got the same response. The next day, the reporter called him.
"Yes, this is Bart," he said after a long silence.
Before the reporter could get a word in, the man -- who had a heavy accent -- rattled off, "How are you? I'm so happy to hear from you. I tried to reach you, but couldn't. I was about to e-mail you again."
The man on the other end of the phone held onto the claim he owns the home even after the reporter identified herself as such, but he hung up without answering any other questions.
When the man's mobile phone number was Googled , seven hits popped up. All were blogs in which people were complaining about possible bogus ads. Two ads were for different properties in Ohio. There were also ads for properties in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Nevada and one of uncertain origins.
In one of the ads, the man identified himself as Wayne Kelley, marketing manager of The Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria.
A voice sounding identical to the "Bart" man answered the phone, this time agreeing he was Wayne Kelley. He instantly hung up when the reporter asked why he uses more than one name to conduct his business.
Craigslist did not respond to The News-Journal's request for comment, but does warn of potential scams at the top of each ad. It also notes its site is not involved in any transaction and does not offer buyer protection or seller certification.
'ANYBODY CAN DOWNLOAD'
New scams that seemingly originate in Nigeria crop up all the time, FBI spokesman Jeff Westcott said in a phone interview from his Jacksonville office.
Distance and dealing with a foreign government make it tough for the FBI to track down those who are responsible for the scams, Westcott said.
"We encourage people to report it to www.ic3.gov," he said, referring to a Web site the FBI uses to track online scams. "There are a number of ongoing investigations."
Nigerians don't have a lock on this scam, officials say. It happens here, too.
Libra Latham, 37, of Deltona pleaded no contest in April to three counts of grand theft and one count of organized scheme to defraud for renting a home in DeBary that wasn't hers to rent, court documents show. She was sentenced to two years probation.
Latham had plenty to say about the case and the investigation, but would say none of it on the record because there are charges pending against her elsewhere.
When she was arrested in January, the Volusia County Sheriff's Office said she would scan Craigslist looking for area homes for rent or sale. She would then post her own ads for the same houses at a lower price, pose as the rental agent, make phony deals and take off with the cash, according to the Sheriff's Office.
She had at least three victims in Volusia County and possible victims in other counties, sheriff's spokesman Gary Davidson said.
"Investigators aren't sure how long Latham has been pulling the scam and how many victims are out there," he said in a report. "Sheriff's investigators discovered one victim through Latham's own records who didn't even realize he had been scammed."
Ponce Inlet resident Baron Luckenbach, who is a Realtor, owns one of the houses she rented out -- not once, but twice -- when he was between legitimate tenants, he said.
"It's easy enough for someone to do," he said, about re-creating ads. "Anybody can download pictures."
Latham got into Luckenbach's house through the combination lockbox, he said.
"Especially when you own the property and you think you have a qualified renter, you may give them the code," Luckenbach said.
Luckenbach and Hamm said it's important to verify who owns the house with the property appraiser before handing over any money.
Here are some tip offs that you are being scammed:
How to foil the scammers
Fraud and scams can be reported to:
Article by: JULIE MURPHY - www.news-journalonline.com