Kristel Taukave was hoping to shorten her daily commute from San Leandro to Berkeley. She went on Craigslist, and found a handful of two-bedroom apartments in her price range scattered throughout the East Bay. She contacted each landlord by e-mail. A waterfront apartment in Emeryville, a condo in Berkeley with a washer-dryer and hardwood floors, or a top-floor unit in a Walnut Creek building with ample storage and a pool, each for under $1000, all seemed too good to be true. And they were.
In response to three different requests for more information, Taukave says she received three identical e-mails from a Pastor Blanca Cococa. "I thought maybe she made a mistake sending the e-mail multiple times."
The e-mail, written in broken English and full of typos, explained that Pastor Cococa had left the country with the only copy of the keys to the unit:
"So me and daughter are here in United Kingdom on a Missionary Work and am with the keys of the house will want to rent out now. ... Hope you are okay with the price of ($850 PER MONTH) with hydro, heat laundry facilities, air condition, Internet connection and so on. i look forward to hearing from you ASAP."
Taukave was aware that the e-mail was a little strange, but she held out hope that things would work out in the end. She really wanted this apartment. She filled out the rental application and e-mailed the Pastor her personal information. Luckily for Taukave this didn't include anything along the lines of bank account or credit card numbers.
In the meantime, Taukave drove by some of the rentals on her list. The South Berkeley condo that Pastor Blanca Cococa claimed to own had a for-sale sign out front. Now totally suspicious, Taukave gave the Realtor a call.
She learned that the condo was not for rent for $850. It was for sale for $269,000.
Thanks to Taukave's call, the real estate agent, Michael Valva, quickly figured out that his original Craigslist ad offering the condo for sale had been copied and pasted into a scam ad.
A recent look at Craigslist uncovered numerous other scam rental ads linked to existing East Bay properties, all offered at a price dramatically lower than the going market rate.
Posing as a would-be renter, a reporter e-mailed individuals posting four such rentals. One turned out to be Pastor Cococa. Two others were also "missionaries," this time "working" in West Africa. They each sent along an "application," an enthusiastic, if not convoluted story, and a blessing from God.
Two of the e-mails included Nigerian phone numbers. When contacted by phone, the young man who answered asked a series of "landlord-ish" questions about monthly income and "reasons for leaving your current apartment." He then tried to make arrangements to have first and last month's rent and security deposit wired via Western Union. The reporter said he'd think about it.
Anyone with an e-mail account is no doubt familiar with these "advance-fee fraud" scams which more often than not seem to come from Nigeria, and traditionally promised large sums of money in exchange for assisting troubled African royalty. Sam Olukoya, a Nigerian journalist, says that young men ranging from "primary school dropouts to university graduates" fill Nigeria's cybercafes by night, working on the scams.
Olukoya says that only a tiny fraction of Nigerians are "fraudsters," but "very many people have become rich overnight from Internet scams and this seems to encourage more and more people to take to the crime."
When one scam gets stale, they adapt. The advance-fee fraud, once known as "The Spanish Prisoner" con, was even being attempted from West Africa by snail mail. But the Internet makes such scams faster, cheaper, and more prolific.
From Milwaukee to the Great Salt Lake, reports of similar rent scams are making the news. One variation currently visible on Craigslist under apartments for rent in the East Bay was also described in a recent post on the site Consumerist.com. The fake landlords (scamlords?) send the following e-mail to interested renters:
"We try to keep our costs and our tenants costs to a minimum so we can rent our units fast and keep them rented."
Whereupon we are invited to click on a link and fill out a form for a free credit check. Victims of this scam willingly hand over credit card and bank account info.
"What I don't understand is how Craigslist allows someone to take an ad and amend it to their own ends," said Valva, the real estate agent whose ad was copied by the scamlord Taukave encountered. Valva says he took his honest condo listing off Craigslist to avoid any confusion with the copycat version. Valva said he tried to contact Craigslist to alert them to the problem, but when he received an automatically generated reply explaining the high volume of customer complaints the free, online classified site receives, Valva decided it wasn't worth the trouble to jump through any more hoops.
Valva says he'd like Craigslist to be more responsive to his concerns, which he imagines are concerns shared by his colleagues in the Realtor community.
Craig Newmark, founder and head of customer service for the site, responded promptly to an e-mail regarding the scam. He requested links to the offending ad and 33 minutes later he sent the following e-mail:
"Thanks! Already gone, looking for more by same guy — Craig"
Yet Newmark declined to answer questions regarding the scams, such as: How can Craigslist protect renters and Realtors?
As for Taukave, she's now staying put in San Leandro. "I'm pretty naive when it comes to this sorta thing, but I learned my lesson."
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