A Brookings woman is out $100 after falling for a real estate scam — and she wants others to be aware of what “good deals” they might find on line.
The problem started when Danielle Emtman and her partner had their rental home sold out from underneath them last fall and had to find another — the fifth in as many years.
In mid-December, they found on Craigslists the perfect duplex on Easy Street.
The purported owner — the property was actually under management with a local property management company — claimed to be a reverend, living in Arizona because his daughter was in the hospital there. He told Emtman he would hold the unit for her if she put $100 as a good-faith down payment on a Visa gift card and send it to him.
“I should have known better,” Emtman said, “but desperation … I don’t know.”
After realizing she’d been duped, she and her partner continued their search on Craigslists — and found yet another ideal house for rent, this one on Memory Lane.
“The price was $600 per month plus a $600 security deposit,” Emtman said. “But we know that’s way too cheap, especially for this house; it’s very nice. We read that and thought, ‘Uh-oh. What’s going on here?’ So, red flags ...”
She was right — and she didn’t fall for it.
It’s not a new scam, but one that’s been around in college towns for at least eight years.
The house on Memory Lane is listed for sale by Realtor Marilyn Busch, who posts many real estate ads on Zillow and Craigslists.
The scammer apparently copied a photo of the property and re-posted it on Craigslists as a rental — and at a price far less than what the market demands. Then he convinces people inquiring about the alleged rental property to send him a down payment — usually always in the form of a gift card.
The man who posted the ad on Craigslists said his name is Rev. Michael David — also from Arizona — and is about to embark on a two- to three-year mission with his wife, Emtman said. He told her to disregard the “For Sale” sign in the yard because, although they originally planned to sell the home, the couple had changed their mind and taken it off the market.
“It’s crazy that someone can do that with your property,” Emtman continued. “I can’t believe what people are capable of — and in the name of God. That should have rung a bell right there. You don’t do that.”
So she called the listing agent.
Caught in the act
Busch, too, is astounded.
Busch posts her ads on both Zillow and Craigslists — and even though she has removed her ad from Craigslists, it’s not connected to the fake ad, so the fake one remains.
“I’m quite concerned about it, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” she said. “Craigslists knows about it; it’s been reported that this is a scam. What are they doing about it? Talk about feeling helpless and having your hands tied. I don’t have control over that ad.”
Busch removed the Memory Lane ad from Craigslists, but noted her frustration that, when posting an ad, Craigslists asks if third-party users can have access to the information.
“I always check ‘no,’” she said. “You’d think that’d stop anybody from using anything on your site. It didn’t stop anything in this case.”
The owners of the Memory Lane home are asking $279,000 for the three-bedroom home.
“Six hundred dollars? What a joke,” Busch said of the scammer’s asking price for rent. “This is beyond too much. The first thing you have to do when you want to rent something is send a deposit, and boom. They’ve got your money.”
The written copy below the fake ad belongs to Busch, but to the side are two boxes: “Cats are OK: Purrr; Dogs are OK: Wooof.”
“They’re widening the net by saying cats and dogs are OK,” Busch said. “You know no one will rent to cats and dogs.”
Beyond for-sale homes
The rental vs for sales dilemma brings up even bigger issues.
Busch helped out a couple in the past who had made vacation reservations in town — only to arrive to find the property didn’t exist.
“What would a person even do to see this is legitimate?” she said. “How would I verify that before I sent money? How do you verify vacation rentals are vacation rentals? They’ve got a captive audience. I’m thinking, how would you prevent that from happening? I don’t know what you’re going to do.”
Busch doesn’t know what she’ll tell anyone who comes to her with claims they’ve put down payments down to rent the house.
“All I can tell them the house is for sale; it’s never been for rent,” she said. “It makes me furious. It makes me very very angry to find out one of my properties is being used and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Late Tuesday afternoon, Busch was notified by the homeowner that they’d become aware of the scam.
“They’re just furious,” Busch said. “People are going to be victimized. We’re going to have people showing up in this community that now have no money and no lodging.”
Craigslists is supposed to have a program that flags a property if another ad uses that property’s address. But sometimes, the scammer will change a digit in the address to circumvent that triggering device.
“The problem is, you don’t think like scammers do,” Busch said. “And it’s hard to be one step ahead of them.”
She imagines it won’t be the first time the scam is attempted here.
“I’ve heard of this happening,” Busch said. “It probably won’t be the last. And the people — they’re so helpless. They’ve lost money. Just like that, it’s gone.”
Emtman and her partner are living in a hotel as they seek a place to rent.
“We can’t do this anymore,” she said. “We’ve uprooted four times in five years. We can’t do it anymore.”