Shore renters being duped by Craigslist scammers

Posted: February 05, 2012

BRIGANTINE, N.J. - When Shore real estate agent Maria Schrenk started getting calls last week inquiring about a cheap summer rental on an upscale property that she had listed for sale or annual lease, she knew something was awry.

When she took a quick look on Craigslist, she discovered the mischief: Scammers had poached information from the legitimate real estate website where Schrenk had listed the property and fashioned a phony advertisement with an irresistible price tag.

The scammers were offering the cute Cape Cod in the 1500 block of Sheridan Boulevard, three blocks from the beach, for $1,400 a month. Were it actually up for summer rental, the house would fetch $3,000 to $4,000 a week, Schrenk said.

Even as Schrenk alerted police, three victims came forward - two who had forked over deposits of $800 each and a third who had sent $1,000 to seal what each believed was a great deal. They had wired the money to bank accounts in Nigeria.

At least one was instructed that the keys would be available at Schrenk's Coldwell Banker At The Shore Realty.

Police said two other properties in the same neighborhood in this Shore resort just north of Atlantic City also were targeted in the scam. A similar ruse was reported in Long Beach Township.

As the annual search for the perfect beach house to rent for a week or two in the summer begins, authorities are alerting vacationers that the process has become a target of scams on Craigslist.

"Some of these scammers are so brazen they tell the victims to go to the real estate office where the property is legitimately listed to pick up the keys after they've paid their deposit," Schrenk said, noting her experience. "Sometimes the people don't even know they've been scammed until they get here. By then their money is long gone."

She says she took to routinely checking the Internet for suspect listings after noticing them two or three years ago on Craigslist and elsewhere.

Long Beach Township police last week issued a warning to renters there after receiving complaints from homeowners and Realtors that four properties were improperly offered on Craigslist. Wary potential renters also alerted police before wiring any money overseas, said Lt. Anthony Deely.

Thomas R. Calcagni, director of the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety's Division of Consumer Affairs, said that scams involving real estate transactions such as beach rentals were first reported in 2009. After that, he said, the incidents seemed to wane.

This year, authorities say the schemes show more sophistication: Scammers apparently have been able to hack into legitimate real estate databases, find properties listed for rent or sale, and obtain confidential details about the owners.

To make their bogus postings look legitimate, the scam artists use the hacked information - including photos of the houses and the names of the property owners - to direct their targets to phony e-mail addresses, said Brigantine Police Lt. Jim Bennett.

The scammers further entice victims by offering the properties for less than half the going rate, Bennett said.

"We are telling people that if the deal seems too good to be true, then it is," he said. "And our advice is that they always deal directly with a licensed real estate agent or office when they are looking for a summer rental."

Before police asked Craigslist to take down the ad, the three victims were all duped by someone claiming to be doing missionary work in Nigeria, Bennett said.

Tracking down the perpetrators is impossible after the money is transferred abroad, Calcagni said.

Declining to comment directly on the Brigantine incidents, a Craigslist spokeswoman said the site offered users a guide to avoid such issues.

"Craigslist goes to great lengths to prevent scams from reaching users, employing a wide variety of technological and staff measures to suppress scam attempts," Susan MacTavish said in an e-mail. "Scams that do reach the site are generally quickly identified and removed by user flagging."

But some will not be reassured.

"I would never use it to offer my property or look for a property," said Margaret Rajnic, of Washington, whose summer house in Brigantine was one of those targeted in the latest scam. "If the scammers can tap into this, they can tap into anything, and that's what's scary."

Last summer, two sets of vacationers surprised each other at an oceanfront house in Long Beach Township. One of them arrived there having paid $1,500 for a week at the house, which normally would rent for 10 times that amount, only to find the homeowners inside. The owners had not even listed the place, police said.

"That's what we don't want to see happening this year . . . that two families would arrive expecting to spend their vacation in the same property," Deely said.


Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

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