On Monday, a Tredyffrin Township homeowner was scanning the real-estate classifieds on Craigslist when she got a surprise: Her own home was illegally listed for rent — at a discount, no less.
Tredyffrin Township Det. Brian Hughes said the scenario is not uncommon. He said with real-estate listings readily available online, it’s not difficult for someone in a foreign country to pose as a landlord, offer attractive rates, and lure bargain-hunters. If prospective tenants make a down payment, they’ll likely never see the money again.
Hughes said police have seen cases where people have arrived with bags packed at what they thought would be their new home only to learn they’d been scammed. He said there’s not much authorities can do once the theft has occurred since the scammers generally live outside the country; however, he said warning signs abound.
Renters should be suspicious of below-market rates as well as requests for payment through Western Union. Hughes said many people don’t realize that if someone wires money to a Western Union office in Berwyn, it can be picked up anywhere in a state contiguous to Pennsylvania. He said some of the flimflammers based in Europe and Africa have operatives in Canada who can cross into New York, grab the money, and run back across the border.
Another common red flag is the use of religious terms, Hughes said. Communication that is punctuated with phrases like “God willing” or “God bless you” is designed to persuade victims that they’re dealing with someone who is reputable, Hughes said. Foreign words, such as referring to a bathroom as a loo, or mixed-up tenses can also signal a problem.
Hughes said the Tredyffrin woman who spotted Monday’s advertisement might have spared herself from having to disappoint a prospective tenant. He said she called Craigslist, which immediately pulled the ad.
Its web site echoes some of Hughes’ tips and adds some others: “deal locally with folks you can meet in person,” avoid wiring funds via Western Union or Moneygram, insist on inspecting a home’s interior before renting it, and refrain from submitting to a credit or background check without first meeting the landlord or agent.