An Edgartown couple this week found themselves tangled up in a scam perpetrated by advertisers on the popular online marketing site, Craigslist. In two separate phone calls, would-be Martha’s Vineyard vacationers have called to say they paid an online advertiser thousands of dollars to rent the couple’s Cottle Lane house.
But Helen and Sandy Havens said the house is not for rent — by them, or anyone else. “We were sort of dumbfounded by it all,” Helen Morris Havens said.
Mr. Havens said they were puzzled, troubled, and not quite sure what to do to prevent other people from losing their money. “We would like to somehow block it, but we don’t have any clue how to do that,” he said. “That’s the damnable part about it, there’s no recourse.”
The whole incident has left the longtime Edgartown residents wondering if more people were taken in, or whether they may find visitors showing up at their door in August expecting to move in for a week or two.
Mr. Havens said he got call about a week ago from a man who told them he discovered the Craigslist advertisement was a scam, but not before he had wired $3,400 to a bank in Kansas.
This week they learned that a Florida woman and her boyfriend answered the same Craigslist advertisement and wired $2,200 to the same person.
Nicole Gottlieb spent eight summers on Martha’s Vineyard, but had not visited for several years when she decided earlier this summer to travel to the Island for a week’s respite.
“I love Martha’s Vineyard,” Ms. Gottlieb said from her Florida home. “It’s my favorite place in America.”
She tried to call her friend Deborah Eggers, a vacation rental specialist in Edgartown, but was unable to connect. In the meantime, she said, her boyfriend found a home in a prime Edgartown location for a bargain price. It included a detailed description of nearby beaches, attractions, and conveniences.
“I was very leery of it,” Ms. Gottlieb said. “I’ve never rented anything from there before. I told him to make sure he got it in writing.”
Ms. Gottlieb and her boyfriend emailed the advertiser several times, always getting a prompt and courteous reply to their questions about pets, linens, and other particulars. The man, who went by the name Dennis Dailey, even told them he would pick them up at the airport and drive them to the home.
Her boyfriend wired $2,200 to a third party who went by the name of Terry Quick, in Manhattan, Kansas.
When they tried to cancel their trip and get a refund, suddenly, they got no answers from the advertiser.
In Edgartown, Ms. Eggers followed up. “I know these people,” she said. “I’d be very surprised that they’re renting.”
Ms. Eggers quickly unraveled the deception, but it was too late.
“I know we’re not getting our money back,” Ms. Gottlieb said. “It’s very scary. It’s unconscionable, it’s pathetic. I could have shown up at these people’s home, with two dogs and a boyfriend, and had nowhere to go.”
Too good to be true
The scam follows an all-too-familiar pattern. It begins with an online advertisement that seems like a terrific bargain, progresses with contact by email or phone from some far-away place, and ends with a request to wire money to a third person or location.
All three elements of the scam are something consumer advocates, and Craigslist itself, warn about in strong terms.
On a web page that urges consumers to avoid scams, Craigslist offers warnings in bold capital letters. “Deal locally with folks you can meet in person,” the web site states. “Follow this one rule and avoid 99 percent of scam attempts.
“Never wire funds via Western Union, Moneygram, or any other wire service. Anyone who asks you to do so is likely a scammer.
“Do not rent housing without seeing the interior,” the web site warns. “In all likelihood that housing unit is not actually for rent.”
Island police departments regularly warn of scams targeting Martha’s Vineyard residents, including other rental scams.
In February, scam artists defrauded a 75-year-old Island grandmother of $4,600 by convincing her that her grandson was in jail on a drunk driving charge, and needed money to pay for damages to another vehicle.
In February 2011, Edgartown police linked a common scam to sell non-existent merchandise on Craigslist to an Island resident.
Several Island restaurant owners report an e-mail scam that has been circulating for at least two years, in which someone wants to hire them for a large catering job, but then asks them to wire money to cover a bogus financial transaction.
Consumer advocates also warn scam victims that they may be targeted more than once.
One of the most common scams is to call someone who has been victimized by fraud, and promise to get their money back.
According to a Federal Trade Commission report, fraud complaints to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies are on the rise.
There are several places to report Internet fraud.
Victims of cyber-crime may file reports at the Internet Crime Complaint Center (http://www.ic3.gov).
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) operates a telephone help line where you can get information about identity theft and other online crimes. The number for the FTC is 1-877-ID-THEFT (1-877-438-4338). Complaints can also be filed at that number.
But police caution that it is extremely difficult and time-consuming to track down scam artists, who are adept at using false identities, fake email accounts, and disguised telephone numbers.
Police say the best defense is not to fall for a scam in the first place.