Local homes part of real estate Web scam

DECATUR — Richard and Iona Watts were shocked at how quickly potential renters started inquiring about their attractive, well-kept home on Decatur’s Swashbuckler Lane.

What was most shocking, however, is that the house isn’t for rent.

The couple listed the ranch-style property for sale with Glenda Williamson Realty in January for $245,000, having already moved out to a new home. But barely four weeks later, an ad appeared on the online classified site, Craigslist, advertising the home as a rental. One wary would-be renter was soon calling the couple to check if the place really was available for $800 a month. The woman renter was suspicious of an absentee landlord who claimed to be in Africa, and she had managed to track the Decatur couple’s address down to check it out for herself.

“There had been an e-mail contact address and the ‘owner’ had e-mailed her back that he was in Africa working and she should send him $800 and he would get the key to her for the house,” said Richard Watts, 81.

The scam was so convincing because the Craigslist ad used words and pictures pirated directly from the Glenda Williamson Realty Web site. Even the e-mail contact address used Richard Watts’ name, making the ad seem even more authentic. “The Williamson realty listing had a mistake. It says there is a slider onto the deck, and there is just a door onto the deck,” Watts said. “And that mistake was even in the Craigslist ad, too.”

The Watts couple filed a complaint with Craigslist, and the ad was removed. They know they are not financially at-risk themselves from what happened, but the experience has left them feeling angry. “Sure, it’s no skin off my nose, but it makes me mad that our house was involved in a scam,” Richard Watts said.

Fake house rentals are just the latest trend in Internet rip-offs, many of them originating in African countries like Nigeria where fraud is a major cottage industry. Previously, e-mail scams from there would arrive telling people they had won a fortune or could receive one if they would only help out a distressed and wealthy Nigerian person by making their bank account details available. Relatively crude and often worded in ridiculous broken English, the ads weren’t particularly convincing.

But the new faux rental scams, using easily accessed venues such as Craigslist and copying actual real estate for-sale ads, are much more sophisticated. And Realtors such as Glenda Williamson say they are seeing more and more of them show up.

“It happened last summer to two houses I had listed,” she said.

“People contact the ad and are told the owner had to leave very suddenly for South Africa or whatever and to not worry about the ‘For Sale’ sign in the yard, that it will be taken care of. One house used in one of these ads even had people still living in it.”

Williamson said Realtors rely on Web sites to help move houses and said there isn’t much they can do to defend against spoof ads showing up on other sites such as Craigslist.

“All we can do is report it to Craigslist every time it happens,” added Williamson. “I was talking to a group of Realtors at a conference in Denver, Colorado, about this, and they said they had the same experience, even down to someone actually paying out money and expecting to move in.”

Craigslist has posted warnings on its site and advises would-be renters to only deal with landlords they can meet in person and to never wire money in response to rental ads.

Norm Willoughby, executive vice president of the Decatur Association of Realtors, said some of the scams just try to persuade victims to send rent money but others, more potentially devastating, seek financial and personal details in the guise of running credit checks.

Willoughby, who used to work for the state’s Office of Banks and Real Estate, said there had been a similar situation with fraudulent eBay auctions but tougher regulations reined it in by requiring eBay to obtain more information about people posting items for sale. “That made follow-up easier if there was a problem,” he added. “And I think we need to have more of those controls on sites like Craigslist.”

The office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan monitors all kinds of Internet scams and is also aware of the Nigerian-based house rental frauds. “They are getting very creative, apparently,” said spokeswoman Natalie Bauer.

Consumer protection advice is listed in detail on the attorney general’s Web site, but certain golden rules apply in all situations, according to Bauer. “Being asked for personal or financial information up front is a big red flag,” she said.

“Arrange to meet the landlord or person renting the house in a public area face-to face, or bring a friend with you. Ideally, you want to be able to have them walk you through the property,” Bauer added. “Take your time and ask for information and records from them that signify they really are the owner of the property or are the property manager. If your gut tells you something might be wrong, it probably is. Trust your instincts.”

Article by: By TONY REID -- H&R Staff Writer - www.herald-review.com