West African rental scam targets Juneau residents

Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2008

For a month and a half, Amyanna Bryan said her daily routine involved checking the Internet for a reasonable place to rent in town.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Recently, she said she thought she found one. Listed on the Web site Craigslist was a three-bedroom house in the Mendenhall Valley for $1,000 a month.

There was only one problem: The house wasn't for rent. The ad on Craigslist was a scam, being run half a world away.

Juneau has joined the swelling ranks of U.S. cities that have caught the eye of West African scam artists trying to rent houses they don't own.

Sean Henderson, the owner of Assist-2-Sell real estate company, said four different potential renters have expressed interest in houses he has listed in recent weeks.

He said the information he had posted on Craigslist trying to sell houses had been repackaged by the scam artists and posted on Craigslist as a rental property. The scammers told the unsuspecting renters to send them private information and a deposit in exchange for the keys to the place, Henderson said.

"It's pretty blatant, in terms of what they are asking for," he said, adding that he had discontinued posting properties on Craigslist until the Web site fixes the problem.

Henderson stressed that sellers are not at risk, and it's only potential renters who face getting fleeced.

Efforts to reach representatives from Craigslist were unsuccessful, but on its Web site the company tells its users to "deal locally with folks you can meet in person" to avoid the majority of scam attempts.

Bryan said that after she responded to the ad on Craigslist she received an e-mail back from someone who alternately called him or herself Cindy and Kelvin Jackson. The e-mail said he or she was doing missionary work in West Africa and owned the home Bryan was interested in renting.

The e-mail asked for Bryan to answer a few questions, including her full name, age, address and occupation.

Bryan said she thought the e-mail sounded "really nice" and responded with the requested information.

She got an e-mail back telling her the house was hers and asking for a payment for sending her the keys.

"Please once again, we are giving you this on trust and do not disappoint us and i promise you that, you will love the house," the e-mail said.

But Bryan never sent the money. She visited the house with her mother and saw that the house was furnished and looked occupied, complete with a dog and cat in the backyard. It also had a "For Sale" sign in the yard.

When she called Assist-2-Sell she found out the house had never been listed for rent and she was a potential victim of a scam.

A call to the cell phone listed at the bottom of the e-mails sent to Bryan, which had a Nigerian country code, did not work.

Bryan said Juneau residents need to be aware that they aren't immune to scams perpetuated from a distance.

"Be very careful," Bryan said. "If you get a bad feeling, go with it."

Sgt. David Campbell of the Juneau Police Department agreed.

"Like anywhere else, there's a potential for fraud," he said. "People need to remain vigilant."

He said it's tough to account for how many people in town may have fallen victim to these kinds of real estate scams because fraud victims are often embarrassed to come forward.

He said the best way to avoid potential scams of this sort is to rely on local experts, such as real estate agents and banks, and to use a healthy dose of skepticism when eyeing a bargain deal on the Internet.

"If it's too good to be true, it probably is," he said.

• Contact reporter Alan Sudermanat 523-2268 or e-mail alan.suderman@juneauempire.com.

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