Seasonal employees seeking housing have lost money to phony online listings.
Martha’s Vineyard is a popular destination for vacationers and college students seeking summer employment. The Island’s popularity and the convenience of web rentals provide fertile ground for scam artists who create fake rental websites.
Realtor Leslie Floyd of Portfolio Real Estate MV in Edgartown emailed The Times Monday to report that she had received two calls the previous weekend from people who were duped by ads on Craigslist.org.
On Saturday, a young man called Ms. Floyd to ask if her agency represented an address in Katama. With a summer job lined up on the Vineyard, he said he found the house listed on Craigslist, and made arrangements to rent it for the summer. He had already wired money via Western Union for the deposit. He said the owner, whose name he knew, was supposed to meet him there with a key.
“Of course, the ‘landlord’ was nowhere to be found,” Ms. Floyd said in her email. “The owner of the home had no idea what was transpiring.”
In a follow-up phone conversation with The Times, Ms. Floyd said she had to break the news to the man that her agency had already rented the house to an Edgartown business for summer employees. And, that once he wired the money, it was gone.
Upset by his experience, Ms. Floyd posted a message under the heading of “Public Service” on Portfolio Real Estate’s Facebook page.
“If you are looking to rent a home on Martha’s Vineyard either for the season or a vacation rental for a week or two, please be very careful who you rent from and how the monies are transferred,” Ms. Floyd warned. “A reputable landlord or Real Estate rental agency would never ask you to send money via Western Union.”
Warning pays off
Fortunately, Ms. Floyd’s message caught the attention of a young woman from Croatia seeking rental housing for 14 women who plan to work on Martha’s Vineyard this summer. The young woman was about to transfer money from her bank in response to a rental offer she found on Craigslist, when she happened to see a warning Ms. Floyd posted on her Facebook page. She emailed Ms. Floyd to ask if the rental was legit.
“It absolutely was not,” Ms. Floyd said.
Ms. Floyd emailed the contact in the dubious listing and received a suspicious reply.
“Not only did it contain improper English and odd phrasing, it also had made vague references to ‘guarantees,’” Ms. Floyd said. “The email asked for funds to be transferred to a bank at an address in South Carolina, and gave a specific routing number. When I looked it up online, the number turned out to belong to bank in Virginia.”
After warning the young woman about the first scam, Ms. Floyd said she received a follow-up email from her about a second suspicious listing on Craigslist. By the time Ms. Floyd did a search for it, however, it had been removed.
“I have email trails for the three listings I found out about, and contacted the real owners,” Ms. Floyd said.
She found two of the properties were also listed on rentjungle.com and hotpads.com, which she said have since been removed.
Ms. Floyd said she has already notified the Federal Trade Commission and planned to notify the State Attorney General’s office on Tuesday, since it was closed Monday for Patriot’s Day.
“I know you can’t always catch everybody, but I feel it’s really important, with so many people in our seasonal workforce coming from so far away, and housing being so tight here, that they don’t take these last-ditch, phony offers out of desperation,” Ms. Floyd said. “A lot of them have lined up jobs and paid their airfare, and have taken their savings out to do it.”
Would-be renters who are told they must wire money or arrange for bank fund transfers, or that they can’t see the inside of a house before renting it, should view those stipulations as a red flag, Ms. Floyd said.
“You always want to rent from a reputable agent,” she said. “At the very least, you should check on who actually owns the home through Vision Appraisal or Massachusetts land records.”
Unfortunately, seasonal and vacation rental scams are nothing new. Ms. Floyd said that although her recent experience was a first for her agency, she knows other Island real estate agents who have dealt with such scams and continue to warn their clients about them.
Two years agoThe Times reported that an Edgartown couple had been contacted by two different people who said they paid an online advertiser thousands of dollars to rent their house. The couple knew nothing about it.
A rental scam like the one they experienced follows a typical pattern. It begins with an online advertisement that seems like a great bargain, progresses with contact by email or phone from someone far away, and ends with a request to wire money to a third person or location. Consumer advocates, and even Craigslist itself, warn consumers about all three elements of the scam.
“Deal locally with folks you can meet in person,” the Craigslist website advises under the heading, “Avoiding Scams.”
“Never wire funds via Western Union, Moneygram, or any other wire service,” the site says. “Anyone who asks you to do so is likely a scammer.”
In concert with Ms. Floyd’s advice, Craigslist also reminds consumers, “Do not rent housing or purchase goods sight unseen — that amazing rental or cheap item may not exist.”