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Internet scams are not new, and some of the strategies they use are not unique to the Internet, but there is no doubt that the Internet can provide a multiplier effect for people intent on defrauding others. I discovered a "good" example of this when I started looking for a place to live in San Diego.
In case you're wondering who I am and why I was looking for a place to live in San Diego, allow me to introduce myself: My name is Stephen Cobb and I recently joined ESET as a security evangelist, based at the company's North American headquarters in San Diego, which happens to be about 3,000 miles from where I had been living in Upstate New York.
The geek in me saw this move as a chance to explore the impact of technology on the logistics of relocation, starting with a virtual reconnaissance mission to San Diego. Very quickly my wife and I became immersed in virtual representations of San Diego delivered via satellite Internet connection to our cottage in the foothills of the Catskills. Using Google Earth and Google Street View we were able to acquire the lay of the land in San Diego County, starting with the downtown area around the ESET office and then venturing into adjoining neighborhoods. At the same time, I was entering important addresses—like the ESET office–into my Garmin GPS, while plotting a cross-country road trip using Streets and Trips (my favorite Microsoft product, after Excel and the Microsoft Wireless Notebook Mouse).
And then there was the virtual apartment hunting. I directed my laptop's web browser to Craigslist. My wife opted to use Craigslist Pro on the iPad (I have since tried the iPhone version of Craigslist Pro and have to say I like it a lot). Almost immediately both of us spotted the same great deal: "Furnished 2BR/2BA Apartment $1,000/month." This was not just any apartment, it was a great looking apartment in a great location downtown, not far from ESET's offices, with great features:
"Fully furnished, the apartment has everything that you wished for, TV, DVD, a/c, internet, cable, towels and lines [sic]. The concrete walls make it quiet inside. Both bedrooms have walk-in closets. The rooms are very spacious…Very luxurious and modern."
All of which was supported by the very professional photos that accompanied the listing, one of which you can see here in this redacted screenshot of the listing (the address that was displayed is a real apartment building that was an "innocent bystander" in this scam):
The part of the listing that was not supported, at least not by commonsense, was the pricing of this fully furnished apartment which, at $1,000 per month, was suspiciously low, right on the edge of "too-good-to-be-true" territory. You probably would know this if you lived in San Diego, but possibly not know this if you were from out of town, making people moving to an area for the first time—that would be me—a natural target for this listing.
But what was this listing trying to achieve? Someone had clearly made an effort to create an attractive and appealing listing, so there had to be a purpose. Was it a bait-and-switch scam? Or maybe a phishing exercise to obtain personal data? Or just a great deal from someone who was desperate to rent out their place? Using a special email address reserved for just this kind of scenario, my wife contacted the person listing the property. The response pointed the way to the scam. In a nutshell, the scammer responds via email with a story about how she is out of the country and then proposes a scheme whereby the prospective renter sends her a deposit. Here is some of the language from the scammer's email:
"I have decided to rent the apartment because my financial situation is not so good at this time and I also cannot live in the US in the near future because I just received a new work contract on the Dunbar Oil platform in the North Sea (I work as an engineer ) and I will be there for at least 8 months per year….Because I am unable to show you the apartment in person I decided that it's better for both of us to use a multinational renting service, provided by Yahoo Real Estate."
Note that "Yahoo Real Estate" is another innocent bystander in this scam. Yahoo does NOT provide any rental services. Also innocent are persons whose name happens to be Amanda Dawson, the name used by the scammer. The odds of that being the scammer's real name are about as slim as those of getting the deposit back when you find out the whole deal is a fraud. And here is where the "multiplier" effect of cyber-scamming comes into the picture.
After notifying Craigslist of the scam my wife did a little more research and found out something very special about this apartment: a very similar apartment was being offered for rent in Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, and several other cities. The scam artist had actually gone to the trouble of localizing the description in each listing, but used the exact same format, photographs and listing parameters in each city: Furnished 2BR/2BA apartment for $1,000 a month.
In other words, here's a scam that might not be worth the effort and risk if you could only do it in one location, but global connectivity and the ease of digital replication make it a much more appealing strategy for parting people from their hard-earned money. So, whatever city you are in, take care when looking online for an apartment. There are some great deals out there, but the ones that seem too good to be true probably are.
If you are looking online for an apartment there is a useful set of practical scam-avoidance tips from the Better Business Bureau here: http://theweekly.com/news/2011/September/06/rental_scams.html
Here is another example of an online apartment scam: http://consumerist.com/2009/05/scammers-advertise-fake-apartments-want-your-real-credit-information.html
And here's a pay-to-view rental scam: http://bostonrealestateobserver.com/boston-craigslist-apartment-scam-trinity-place/
To get a sense of the scope of this type of scam, check out this blog post from a few years ago by San Diego blogger Nate Ritter, which generated over 240 comments, many of them examples of rental scams: http://blog.perfectspace.com/2008/09/09/nigerian-scam-rentals-on-craigslist/
Finally, have you encountered an online apartment rental scam? If so, please leave a comment and let people know about it. Those of us who are looking for a place to live will appreciate it.
Author Stephen Cobb, ESET