Sept. 12, 2008 -- Last month Val Dennis was searching the Internet for a new place to live when she stumbled on the perfect deal: a nice house, in the right neighborhood at a great price.
Almost too perfect.
After talking with the landlord she wired a deposit to Nigeria and got one step closer to moving in. Unfortunately, she stumbled into the latest twist in the long history of Internet scams: a housing ad that looks legitimate but is just really a way to part people and their money.
Dennis is out $650 and still searching for a new home.
In this tight economy, Internet scams are on the rise and they have adapted to play off America's housing struggles.
Scammers often find legitimate properties for rent online. They then steal the description and photos and post their own ads on Craigslist and other Internet classified sites, often asking a few hundred dollars less than the actual property. If a prospective tenant drives by the home or apartment, they see a real "for rent" sign.
Dennis, who lives in Dayton, Nev., just started a new job 40 miles away working as a clinical lab technician at a Reno hospital. She, her husband and their 11-year-old son decided it was time to move closer to Reno.
That's when she found an ad for the home on Craigslist. Dennis contacted the person who placed the ad. He claimed he had recently been transferred to Africa and was now looking to rent out his home.
"The apartment is locked and I have the keys so you can only see the exterior," the fake landlord wrote in an e-mail to Dennis.
She then filled out a housing application and e-mailed it back and quickly got approved.
"I want you to know that i'm satisfied with your profile and also believe l can trust in you l showed your profile to my wife and daughter ,they said they are ok with it.l want you to know that we can let you stay in my House till the period of time you wish to," the scammer e-mailed. "I want you to know that the rent fee is among the House utilities all included, so you can use them anytime but make sure you take proper care of my properties.We will come and pay you a visit after you have moved into my House to see how you are maintaining it."
He then asked for Dennis to wire money to Nigeria.
"I told him no. I said I needed some type of lease agreement," she said. "I went by to see it. It was the same photos as he had on the Web site. I checked out the neighborhood. I looked at the house. It was locked down, but the all the windows were open. Everything was cleared out."
The lease arrived and she sent him half the money -- $650 -- saying the other half would come after the keys arrived.
Once the money was sent, he told her that there was another renter interested who would pay six months upfront. If Dennis could pay two more months of rent immediately, she could have the house.
"At that point, I knew it was a scam," she said.
The house was actually being rented out by Sierra Nevada Management Group for a few hundred dollars more a month.
Sandy Clark is the owner of the property management firm. The scammers had stolen her ads and were even using her name in e-mails to their targets.
"People don't know that they're a scam until they send the first e-mail," Clark said.
The scammers lifted, word-for-word, the description of the house that Clark had posted on a legitimate real estate search site. It was one of several properties that they lifted.
"I ended up having to pull my ads from the site I was using," she said. "But I still have to do business and I still have to advertise."
And this scam isn't just happening in Reno.
It has popped up recently in Cincinnati; Boulder, Colo.; Savannah, Ga.; and other cities around the country.
Greg Donewar, manager of the federal Internet Crime Complaint Center, in Fairmont, W. Va., said that last year his center -- which works with the FBI -- was getting 4,000 complaints of Web scams a week. Now it's 5,000 a week.
"I wouldn't just say there's an increase in housing scams. We've noticed a significant increase in complaints overall this year," he said. "It has increased quite a bit."
Craig Butterworth, a media specialist for the National White Collar Crime Center, which also works with the FBI on cybercrime, said the poor economy has a lot to do with the rise.
How to Avoid Scams
"I think it's a safe bet to say when there is a downturn in the economy, there's a surge of fraudulent activity," Butterworth said. "It is economy driven."
"Desperation may be a part of it," he added. "It's an area of vulnerability: people looking to get into homes, people looking to get out of homes."
Butterworth said anytime you are asked to wire money overseas it should be a red flag.
"You have to do your homework. Make a phone call. Get to know the individual. These sort of transactions, you would never want to do not face-to-face," he said. "You want to be able to shake the individual's hand. You don't want to conduct these things in the shadows."
To avoid being scammed:
Deal locally with people you can meet in person.
Never wire funds through a wire service.
Never give out financial information.
Most scams involve a foreign inquiry, inability to meet face to face and money orders, cashier checks, shipping and escrow services.
Look out for bad syntax and grammar -- does it look like something that appears to have been written by someone who is not a native English speaker.
Scammers also talk about their religion and faith in God.
"It's incumbent on you the individual to exercise your due diligence. Do the research, put in the effort, find out who you are dealing with," Butterworth said. "The truth of the matter is: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is."