You can’t believe your good fortune—you find a rental home in a nice area through a Craigslist classified ad at an unbelievably low rate. The landlord—who had to leave the country and travel to Nigeria—asks that you wire him two months’ worth of rent. You arrive at the home on the agreed-upon date, but there’s just one small problem—the house is not actually for rent and its owners know nothing about your agreement.
This latest scam being perpetrated by Nigerian criminals located halfway around the world has been seen in a number of U.S. states, perhaps in response to the current housing market—with fewer people buying, more people are renting.
But it’s not really a new scam, just a variation of an old one. The so-called 419 scheme—named after the Nigerian penal code section under which this particular kind of fraud is prosecuted—has been around since the early 1980s. The common thread running through these kinds of scams? The victims are solicited by Nigerian criminals to transfer money out of the U.S. and into the criminals’ pockets; usually by being promised something in return. And these schemes are profitable, costing victims millions of dollars annually.
In South Carolina, the rental scam problem has become so prevalent that Columbia FBI Special Agent in Charge David Thomas recently issued a warning about it to homeowners and prospective renters, particularly in the Charleston, Columbia, and Hilton Head areas. The scam has also ensnared victims in Rhode Island, Illinois, Colorado, and California, among other states.
How exactly does the rental housing scam work? The criminals search websites that list homes for sale. They take the information in those ads—lock, stock, and barrel—and post it, with their own e-mail address, in an ad on Craigslist (without Craigslist’s consent or knowledge) under the housing rentals category. To sweeten the pot, the houses are almost always listed with below-market rental rates.
An interested party will contact the “homeowner” via e-mail, who usually explains that he or she had to leave the U.S. quickly because of some missionary or contract work in Africa. Victims are usually instructed to send money overseas—enough to cover the first and last month’s rent—via a wire transfer service (because the crooks know it can’t be traced once it gets picked up on the other end).
Renters might sometimes be asked to fill out credit applications asking for personal information like credit history, social security numbers, and work history. The Nigerian crooks can then use this info to commit identity fraud and steal even more money from their victims.
How to avoid being victimized:
* Only deal with landlords or renters who are local;
* Be suspicious if you’re asked to only use a wire transfer service;
* Beware of e-mail correspondence from the “landlord” that’s written in poor or broken English;
* Research the average rental rates in that area and be suspicious if the rate is significantly lower;
* Don’t give out personal information, like social security, bank account, or credit card numbers.
The FBI says, if you suspect a scam, have already been victimized, or know someone who has fallen victim to a scam, report it to their Internet Crime Complaint Center.