Real estate agents and property management companies are reporting an increase in scams advertising rental houses, when the house actually is for sale or rent by another agency.
Many of the Craigslist ads include photos and information taken from the legitimate for sale or rental ad. Telltale signs of the scam: The owner is out of the county, usually in Africa, and the ads and e-mails are riddled with poor grammar.
One other tipoff: The rental price is far below market value.
Kristin Alexander, spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's Office, said the scam isn't new, and it happens everywhere.
But Wynden Holman, Windermere Real Estate office manager, said he has seen a flood of scams within the last six months. It even varies in what the scammer asks.
"Sometimes they're just asking for an application fee, but then they get 50 applicants and they've got their money," Holman said. "Others ask for a full deposit fee to hold (the rental)."
Bellingham resident Jean Freestone was suspicious when she saw an advertisement for a Fairhaven house with a rental price far below others in the area.
"A two-bedroom house in Fairhaven for $600 a month - it's too good to be true," Freestone, 63, said.
The ad included a photo, which Freestone said made it seem legitimate, but she also was tipped off by the supposed owner's current location, Nigeria.
"Nigeria seems to be the fraud capital of the world right now," Freestone said.
She looked up the property on the Whatcom County Assessor's website and found that the real property owners were not the ones listed in the ad.
Freestone said the advertisement disappeared from Craigslist a few days later.
Blaine police received a report July 28 from a woman suspicious when the "owner" of Semiahmoo home for rent told her to wire him $2,700 in Africa and he would send her the keys. Police advised her it might be a scam.
Kristi Coy, a RE/MAX real estate agent, said a few of her sale listings have been used by scammers in the past. Just recently one of her rentals was targeted.
After receiving several phone calls from people who had seen the fake ad, Coy contacted the scammer herself. The woman, who told Coy she was currently in West Africa, did not ask for money right away; she only asked for some basic information, such as Coy's phone number and current address.
Coy didn't give her information but suspected that the woman would have asked for money next.
The fake ads usually don't ask renters to provide social security numbers or other personal information. The scammers just want the money.
Gosha Bikker, president of Landmark Real Estate Management, said at least three of their rental listings had been targeted by scammers within the last month; all the ads included photos and instructed people to wire the money to Nigeria.
One woman who responded to a Craigslist scam was confused and called Bikker when she saw a Landmark advertisement listing the rental price for the same house at $1,300 a month. The woman had already wired $900 to Nigeria.
"It's probably the people who aren't computer and Internet-savvy (who fall for the scam)," Bikker said. "They hear about Craigslist and they want to make transactions there because they hear about people getting these great deals and they just trust (that everyone is honest)."
Agents and property management companies are taking precautions against scammers.
Bikker said she includes a warning about scams in all of Landmark's ads; Coy said she has stopped including the address in her ads.
"(Scammers) can't place the ad if they don't have the address," Coy said.
Gosha Bikker's name was corrected August 5, 2010.
TIPS TO AVOID BEING SCAMMED
• Only deal with people who live locally who you can meet in person.
• Never wire money anywhere.
• Never give out financial or personal information online.
• Check the Whatcom County Assessor's office to find out who owns the property.
• Craigslist warns that it does not scan the ads that appear on its site and does not handle any transactions.
SOURCES: Craigslist, Washington Attorney General's Office
HOW TO FIND THE REAL HOMEOWNER
• Go online to whatcomcounty.us/assessor.
• Click "real property search" on the left side of the screen.
• Read and agree to the disclaimer.
• Change the search type to "property address" in the drop-down box at the top of the page.
• Type in the address and choose the city in the second drop-down box. Click "search."
• Click "view details" on the right side next to the chosen property.