If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. That's good advice from Realtors, home owners and the Juneau Police Department when it comes to shopping for rentals in Juneau.
As has happened at least once in the last several years, Juneau rental shoppers are in danger of getting scammed by unscrupulous Craigslist post. Craigslist is an online classifieds service. The website does not police the transactions that take place through its service and recommends buyer beware.
The scam goes like this: Individuals select a house for sale, not for rent, from a Realtor website and copy information about its size, bedroom count address and other information. It lists the information on Craigslist as a house or apartment for rent at unbelievable prices. Sometimes the scammer starts an email account using the seller's real name.
“That should be the red flag,” said Juneau Realtor Debbie White. “If three-bedroom houses are going for $1,800 a month, (renters) are not going to find one for $1,100.
White said there is no reason homes would rent that low in Juneau.
“Our market in Juneau is extremely healthy. Alaska is one of few states with super-duper low foreclosure rate,” White said. “Houses are holding prices here, it’s a balanced market.”
The real damage is done once potential renters contact the scammers. The renters are asked for important personal information and told they will have to wire rent and deposit to Africa — the scammers say they are away on work or some other excuse.
The scams have become more sophisticated.
“These people are getting better at doing their homework,” White said.
A house at 3010 Hamilton Street was recently scammed, White said.
“I even posted notices with the address that it was not for rent,” White said. Somehow people didn’t seem to find those and kept going to the house, knocking on the door, and even peeking through windows.
These scams cause concern for people trying to sell their homes and for the Realtors doing the selling.
“A lot of people are sending emails. I would say, on average, I lose at least 10 hours per month dealing with these scams,” White said. “This is not the first time this has happened, and it happens even if I don’t post the house for sale on Craigslist.”
People are looking for a good deal, White said. “I don’t want to see anyone else get ripped off.”
White said she is frustrated at the waste of time for her and her industry.
“But more importantly, we need to get the word out that these scams are very real. People lose money, and there is little recourse,” she said.
White said she was able to work with Craigslist to remove the fraudulent rental ads.
“By noon on Saturday the ads were taken down, White said. “First thing Sunday morning, there it is again. And it is still on there,” she said Monday.
Craig asked that his last name not be used as his wife’s name was used to set up a fraudulent email account. The account was used to answer requests by renters looking to rent Craig’s house, a house the couple still lived in and were actively trying to sell.
Craig said he found out his house was for rent when a young couple came over to check the place out. “I felt bad for the couple, they were just about to wire the money,” he said.
“It’s a real pain in the butt having people calling the house, coming over to the house,” Craig said. “I have people walk up to the door... ‘wow there’s somebody living here.’”
Craig said he had an easy time shutting down the fake email account. “I called Yahoo, said here is the deal, here is the scam and asked them to look into the account,” he said. It only took three minutes for Yahoo to pull the account.
Craig’s house sold in early December. However, Craig said it was listed for sale for five months. “We could have lost a potential buyer we never met,” he said.
Victims of rental scam have little recourse after the crime. It is better to be vigilant, said Sgt. David Wrightson of the Juneau Police Department.
“I think one of the surest signs is if they want you to wire money Not just on this scam, but any scam,” Wrightson said.
Sending a wire transfer is like sending cash.
“Once you send it you will never get it back,” Wrightson said.
Often these types of frauds come from out of the U.S. Foreign scammers say they can’t meet face to face as they are out of town, traveling on business.
“If you can’t meet the landlord, I’d be skeptical,” Wrightson said. Others "tells" of fraud are an unusual sense of emergency to act, a push to act now. The emails will have a lot of misspellings, misuses of capitalizations. “If they are overly polite but the wording just doesn’t seem normal,” Wrightson said.
Typically landlords will not ask for bank account information and instead do a standard credit check, Wrightson said.
If you believe you have been a victim of fraud, call the police department, Wrightson said. He admits that it is difficult to prosecute this kind of crime. “Most of these things happen out of the U.S.,” he said.
• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.