SYRACUSE (WSYR-TV) - Families looking to rent or sell a home soon should watch their step on Craigslist.
Fake ads have surfaced on the site for years, but several people have discovered the rental scam online in recent weeks, suggesting Central New York has become a target again.
An Oswego County woman says she had to change her locks after a fake posting on the site attracted a few unexpected guests to her home.
A for sale sign was the first clue something wasn't right, when a couple knocked on Brenda Amoroso's door.
"They told me, 'you know your house is listed on Craigslist for rent?'" Amoroso explains.
She had put her house on the market for sale, but had no interest in renting.
Amoroso found the listing and flagged it as fast as she could, but the visitors just kept coming.
"For four straight days I had people knocking at my door and I didn't want to leave," she says.
The offer looked like the real deal, complete with pictures and a description of the property.
"He took all the information off the MLS," Amoroso explains. "It gave out my address and it said him and his wife had moved to Virginia. They were missionaries...It had a little mini-application."
The asking price for a whole house with several acres was just $600 a month.
"He wanted security deposit and first month's rent wired to him, so these people were going to get scammed out of $1200," she adds. "I actually put a thing on my door - 'This house is not for rent.'"
WHEN STRANGERS MOVE IN
After years of renting out a home in Syracuse, Vincent St. James decided to put it on the market for sale.
"We had refinished all of the countertops, cabinets floors, painted everything. It was a lot of work," explains Taralynne Jenkins, Vincent's wife.
Days later, Joanne Cichy spotted pictures of the house on Craigslist, described as a rental. She quickly filled out an application and called the number listed.
"It was $500 everything included, which is a steal," Cichy said. "The whole background story was they would be out of state for four to five years. They were working for some mission or organization."
Cichy says she made three payments totaling $800 for rent and fees, sent to Nevada through Western Union.
She filled out a lease and keys to the house soon arrived in the mail. Cichy eagerly moved in, loving her new place until a stranger showed up on her doorstep wondering how she got inside.
Vincent had stopped by to check on the property that he was hoping to sell, only to discover that his key no longer worked and a family he never met had moved in.
Turns out that Craigslist ad that seemed like a steal to Joanne....was indeed the work of a thief.
"Someone, they broke into the house and stole whatever they wanted to steal and changed the locks in the process," St. James explains.
The scam is now so common, his realtor has posted signs on the windows, letting families know the house is not for rent.
"I would recommend monitoring, if you list your house for sale, monitoring Craigslist or any of the listing websites for rental properties," Jenkins adds.
Cichy agreed to move out a couple of days later, helping her unsuspecting "landlords" avoid a bigger nightmare.
She admits that desperation for a good deal convinced her to ignore too many warning signs, a lesson that cost $800.
"It's mainly my fault, but it's a big setback," she says.
THE RED FLAGS
Police say victims of the Craigslist rental scam rarely recover their money.
There's limited solid information for investigators because phone numbers listed on the fake ads may be cloned and change.
The primary scammers are often located overseas, working with shifting contacts throughout the U.S. to transfer "rent" payments.
Here are some of the common experiences of victims:
*Money has to be sent to another state....using Western Union.
*The "landlord" can't show the apartment in-person because they have moved out of the area.
*Scammers often have accents and may say they are working out of town as missionaries.
Homeowners who decided to put their house on the market are advised to:
*Monitor Craigslist for fake posts using the MLS.
*Report fake posts to the website right away.
*Consider posting a sign outside that says "Not for Rent" in case someone drives by the check the property.
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