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Cautionary tale
Aug 14, 2009

If it appears to be too good to be true, it probably is — a lesson some people have learned when they shopped the Internet for anything from a car to an apartment or house to rent. There are plenty of legitimate sellers on the Internet, but there are also a number of scam artists who will do everything in their power to separate money from another person’s wallet. 

Winnipeggers are now familiar with the story of the Ontario woman who thought she had rented a local house from the classified website Kijiji Canada. According to media reports, the woman believed she had rented the perfect house in Point Douglas — all-inclusive, furnished and three bedrooms — for a measly $700. 

She called it the perfect deal. But when she arrived in Winnipeg to claim her prize, the woman found someone else was already in residence. The landlord she thought she rented the house from turned out to be a completely different person than the real landlord.

Winnipeg Police Service said such scams are rare in Winnipeg, but it is one of the new ways scam artists are trolling the Internet for victims.

An Inman News article — the news service used the WREN — by columnist Marcie Geffner has a remarkably similar tale of woe, which shows the extent of the fraud and how brazen such perpetrators have become. The explanation of how the scam works should be regarded by prospective renters and landlords as a cautionary tale on how not to be fooled.

Sarah Stelmok, a homeowner and real estate agent in Frederick, Virginia, lived in a townhouse until 18 months ago, when they bought and moved into their “dream home” just five blocks away in the same neighbourhood.

They retained ownership of the 1,200-square-foot townhouse with two bedrooms and one-and-one-half bathrooms located in a desirable area that boasts a city-run stocked fish pond, a dog park, an historic district, tennis and racquetball courts, a small college and a large city park. 

Originally, they had placed the townhouse on the real estate market, but withdrew it and rented it to friends. The friends eventually found their own “dream home.” and Stelmok and her husband decided to again rent the townhouse. They soon found new tenants who were willing to move into the townhouse by mid-summer.

Along the way, both Stelmok and her husband were contacted by two different women who wanted to know if the couple owned the townhouse. The women had both seen the townhouse advertised for rent on a website, complete with photos of the interior. One of the women also viewed a virtual tour that Stelmok had created when the property had been listed for sale.

According to the article, both women said they had been in contact via e-mail with a person who claimed to be the owner of the townhouse and who confirmed that the monthly rent was only US $900, which was a 25-per-cent discount for such a home in the neighbourhood.

Stelmok sent an e-mail of her own to the imposter, who signed himself with the name “Michael Richie.” The impostor said he was in Nigeria.

During the e-mail exchanges in the Winnipeg case, the impostor said he lived in the city and was a minister. Yet, the woman sent him money through an international wire transfer service, who could have resided anywhere in the world, although it is likely the man posing as the landlord was located in Nigeria, allegedly the Internet scam capital of the world. 

What transpired when Stelmok, in the guise of an eager renter, was a bizarre, hilarious, sad and scary spat of correspondence. Stelmok attempted to extract a bank account for Richie, while Richie attempted to convince Stelmok to wire US $1,400 to him via Western Union. 

Richie sent Stelmok a rent application form, which she filled out with fake information and dutifully sent it back. Richie e-mailed her with the story that her rent application — for her own townhouse! — had been disapproved, since she hadn’t forwarded the necessary funds. When she balked at wiring the funds, Richie helpfully sent her the addresses and hours of operation of five western Union offices in Fredericksburg.

“I learned a lot about how far they are willing to go,” said Stelmok. “It took about three-an-one-half weeks, and that was a long time for him to be on the hook.

“He was angry and frustrated because I wasn’t sending the money. I wanted to get some information that we could track.”

But Stelmok wasn’t able to tease anymore information out of Richie, although she filed a report about him and his activities through an FBI website that tracks federal Internet crime complaints. She also found out that such crimes are rarely investigated unless substantial amounts of money are lost. Undoubtedly why the Internet scammer only demanded US $1,400, as these bunco artists are well-versed in what they are able to obtain without attracting the attention of the authorities.

To help other people avoid similar scams, Stelmok posted her correspondence with Richie on her blog: sarahiouslyspeaking.com

“I don’t like that they were hurting the consumer” she told Geffner. “We have a lot of foreclosures (in her neighbourhood), and if someone has been foreclosed on, they need a house quick and this man is going to prey on that. That was very upsetting to me.”

In Winnipeg, the opposite is true — the housing market remains strong — but Internet scammers probably know that the rental market is  extremely tight, with a vacancy rate for rental properties of under one per cent. Such a market  condition makes it easier for scammers to perpetrate their frauds, as potential renters are desperate.

When renting on-line it is advisable to cross-reference the information provided, look in the phone book and call someone in the city to find out if it’s a legitimate business, RCMP Cpl. Leslie Dolhum told the Winnipeg Free Press.

A consumer’s best bet is to shop locally, and not rely upon the word of someone outside the country, especially in Nigeria.

It’s a case of caveat emptor — that deal you thought you had made may be too good to be true.