If something seems like it might be too good to be true, it probably is.
Central Lakes College student Sarah Mozey learned that valuable lesson after nearly getting caught up in a housing scam found on Craigslist.
Mozey, 19, said she responded to a Craigslist ad for a rental home on Ahrens Hills Lane.
“I was excited,” Mozey said. “It was a great house.”
Mozey responded to the ad via email and received a response from a person she thought to be the home owner. Mozey said the email told her the home owners moved to West Africa and were in the market to sell the home before deciding to maintain ownership, but rent the home out.
“I thought it was kind of weird so I Googled the guy,” Mozey said.
The name on the email matched the name of the home owner, but Mozey grew more suspicious when a follow-up email told her she was approved to rent the home and asked her to send a deposit in exchange for keys to the home. The email also said the home could not be viewed prior to renting because the owner had possession of the keys and was out of the country. The contact information for the home owner included a phone number with a 234 country calling code — the international code for Nigeria.
“I thought I should check into this,” she said. “The whole thing was just really fishy.”
A simple online search turned up several postings similar to email Mozey received from the person claiming to be the home owner.
“It was the exact same paragraph as the one I was emailed,” Mozey said.
Mozey contacted the real estate agent listed on the for sale sign posted in front of the home on Ahrens Hill and discovered the home was in fact for sale. It was then that Mozey said she realized she was nearly caught up in a scam.
“I was kind of disappointed,” she said. “I was really excited about the house, but then I realized it just obviously wasn’t going to work out.”
Brainerd Police Department investigator Craig Katzenberger said scams like the one Mozey responded to are growing more common, and are difficult to track down. “There’s just so much of it going on, Katzenberger said, “Some days we get four or five calls just on scams online.”
Katzenberger, who investigates Internet crimes, including scams, for the Brainerd Police Department, said common scams reported in the Brainerd area include car sale scams, alleged notification of winnings from Publisher’s Clearing House, fake checks arriving in the mail, and mystery shopper scams, and one growing more and more common — scammers contacting individuals claiming to be their grandchildren in need of money.
“Basically anytime some one wants to do business without talking to you or meeting in person it’s a red flag,” Katzenberger said.
Housing scams are newer to the lakes area, but have increased in the last couple of years.
Katzenberger said scammers, many from Nigeria, find addresses and photos of homes for sale on realty websites and then post the information on Craigslist hoping to lure potential renters to send deposit money sight unseen.
“Once the money is sent it’s pretty much gone,” Katzenberger said. “It’s completely out of our jurisdiction.”
Katzenberger said even the Federal Bureau of Investigation cannot do much to stop the scams besides trying to shut the accounts down. “The best things we can do is just try to prevent people from doing it in the first place,” Katzenberger said.
When it comes to private Internet sales, Katzenberger said the best policy is to try to deal with people locally. Pay attention to language in an email — if the language sounds odd or includes strange phrasing, there’s a good chance the person advertising is working a scam. Katzenberger warned never to give anyone bank account information, your Social Security number, and do not accept over payment for the shipping costs of items purchased. Bottom line, if things seem fishy they probably are.
SARAH NELSON KATZENBERGER may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5879.