Renters beware of online scams
It seemed like it was a completely legitimate advertisement.
When an individual searched on Craigslist for a Block Island home to rent for a week during the summer, she found what seemed like the ideal place for her family’s vacation needs. It was advertised as a three-bedroom house, and would be available between Aug. 10 and Aug. 17.
But, in fact, it was a fraudulent ad, according to New Shoreham Police Chief Vincent Carlone. The actual owner of the house did not know the ad had been placed.
The advertisement was placed by someone with a name not associated in any way with the owners of the house, said Carlone, who said the name was possibly a fake. The house is officially rented through another island real estate agent, said Carlone.
According to a report filed by the New Shoreham Police Department on Feb. 11, “The suspect... sounded Middle Eastern during the follow up conversation with the potential renter (victim)..., who became suspicious after he couldn’t answer questions about the area, and [the victim] contacted police.”
Carlone said he has forwarded the incident to the Rhode Island Attorney General Fraud Unit for further investigation.
“We turn these matters over to the Attorney General’s office and they investigate them," said Carlone. "The problem with these are, with the advent of computers, often the people responsible for them are in other countries or states, so it presents a serious problem for local enforcement. It also presents a question of whose jurisdiction it is to enforce."
Carlone said incidents like this have occurred in the past, and it can ruin vacations when a family shows up to the island and there is no place for them to stay. "There is nothing for that family to do other than leave the island," said Carlone.
"My advice to them, if you're going to go on sites like Craigslist, do not send anybody any money on any of these sites," said Carlone. "Deal directly with the Block Island Chamber, with hotels and real estate agents. Oftentimes people get hurt when they're looking for a deal. If it looks too good to be true, then it probably is."
Island real estate agents echoed Carlone's comments.
"My suggestion is people should really talk to a realtor. Websites like HomeAway.com certainly serve a purpose, but maybe there needs to be another layer of protection," said Jennifer Phillips of Phillips Real Estate. She also said, "I would never instruct someone to wire money into my account."
Gail Heinz of Sullivan Real Estate said the renter is the one who must be on the lookout for scams. She also suggested dealing directly with real estate agents.
“This goes on all the time — don’t use Craigslist,” said Susie Weissman of Attwood Real Estate. “I’m notifying all my homeowners that this has happened and suggest they keep an eye on Craigslist listings.”
The phony advertisement, which was posted on Feb. 6 and is still on Craigslist as of Feb. 12, reads, "This neo classic beach house sits on a pond with the most beautiful beach on the island at the end of your driveway you don't need a car, as it just a short walk to the ferry dock and town. A post and beam house with loftlike space, the downstairs has a Kitchen/living/dining rea and French doors opening out onto a covered porch oceanside and a back deck with water views."
The individual who found this ad contacted the poster, who then forwarded her pictures of the home, a "certificate of ownership," and references from others who supposedly rented the same home.
A reference said in an email to the interested renter, "This is certainly a home that gives you class and value for your hard earned money and is a refuge after a hard day of shopping and sightseeing. I paid my deposit and he sent me a receipt for my reservation, and my damage security deposit was given back to me at the point of my departure in cash. Have a blessed stay."
The individual who posted the ad asked the interested renter to pay $1,550 to book the house.
He wrote in an email, "To secure the house down for your dates 50% of the rental fee will be required = ($1,050) + $500 a fixed refundable damage security deposit... We accept payment via bank wire."
But before the individual made this payment, she forwarded the request to Carlone.
"I have an unusual request as I am trying to establish the legitimacy of a summer rental," the individual wrote in an email to Carlone on Feb. 9. "I am trying to establish the legitimacy of this rental due to the fact that Craigslist can be prone to scams and I would not only have a fair sum of money at risk but my family's vacation as well."
She continued in her email that she searched for the phone number of this property and it was listed under a different name. Carlone said the true homeowner has been notified of the situation.
The individual stated in her email, "I know this is not your typical area of work but know that this is a tight community and that you go great lengths to keep the island safe and enjoyable place for all its visitors."