One thing I have learned about making purchases and striking deals on the internet is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Fortunately, I did not have to learn this lesson the hard way. Rather, I have been exposed to a variety of schemes by spending many Monday mornings at the Southampton Town Police station flipping through the blotter. In some incident reports, potential victims told police they wised up to a scam before sending any money. But often it is only after wiring or mailing cash—and not getting what they paid for—that they go to the police. Because many scammers are international or hide behind the anonymity of the internet, they are never caught.
Recently, when my friend on an apartment hunt emailed me a real estate listing with the question, “A scam?” I had to read no further to know the answer was yes.
The place in question, in a new-ish condo development in Hampton Bays, was listed for $1,500 a month for a two-bedroom, with all utilities included. The price alone should have been a dead giveaway. Anything new and that close to the water would come with a much higher price tag. But the scammer tries to explain why the listing is such a good deal—and why she can’t show the condo to potential renters before they move in.
The scammer claims she is a woman named Theresa from Hampton Bays who is now living in Missouri, after being uprooted to St. Louis due to work obligations.
“I wanted to sell my property but with the advice of my family i decided to rent it out and we are looking for a fearing family that could take our property as their own,” Theresa wrote in an email. “Before we left we search for a fearing and reputable agent who can take good care of the property but we couldn’t get any honest agent.”
She goes on to tell a sob story about how the first agent she enlisted rented the condo to multiple applicants at the same time. With no luck finding a “fearing and reputable agent,” she took the keys, remote and papers and left for Missouri. She said she also had to take the “for sale” sign away, and if there is another “for sale” sign still lingering from any of the disreputable agents “don’t contact them for any reason.”
In addition to wanting assurances that her tenant will care for and manage the property, Theresa wants a “refundable” security deposit of $1,000, plus the first month’s rent of $1,500 as a “move-in deposit.”
After a detailed application in which she wants to know things such as the tenant’s pets’ names, she adds one more thing:
Note: You can drive by the property for now to see the outside since i and every member of my family are out of town so we don’t have anybody to show you the interior and as soon as you have the keys and documents with you, then you can view the interior.
Theresa fails to mention the unit number, so it could be any of more than a dozen apartments at that complex. (An individual condo there sells for more than $600,000.) However, it is really none of them. The scammer just downloaded the photos from another listing and kept the exact location as vague as possible.
And this wasn’t a craigslist scam. It was listed on a real estate website—but one that takes listings from anyone with minimal screening. The false listing has since been removed, though that won’t stop “Theresa” from trying this again.
This exact scam was one of many that have been among the reports in the town police blotter. In the incident report I read earlier this year, the victim actually sent his deposit. When he tried to move in on the first of the month, he found that there was someone already living there. He explained to the occupant that he rented the place and the key was supposed to be there waiting for him in a hidden spot. The occupant explained that she had no idea what he was talking about because she was the owner and she sure as hell didn’t list it for rent.