Is Greece the new Nigeria? Tell me if this is a scam!
September 12, 2007 6:06 AM   Subscribe

Help me figure out if this is a scam and if so how? We're looking to rent an apartment in NYC and have found somewhere through Craigslist that looks great but the process is complicated by the fact that the potential Landlord is out of the country. He's sent us an email (contents after the jump) on how he proposes getting us the keys and us completing the contract if we like the apartment. I can't see how it's a scam but it smells kind of odd... Mefite detectives, go to it!

The text of the email in full...

"The problem is that I will not be in the country for 5 years. My proposal is for you to wire the $x amount (2 months in advance for whole place) to a friends/relatives of yours, i mean to make a money gram transfer to your friends/relatives and e-mail me the receipt, i will verify with money gram if the funds is there and i will feel comfortable knowing that you have the money and you are a serious tenant and i am going to fedex the keys to you and a leasing contract signed by me. The money will remain all this time at money gram and you will have to re-send it on my name if you decide to take the apartment. I will support the fees. If you decide not to keep the apartment you will take your money back, i will refund you for the money gram fees and you will send me the keys back. If you agree this deal please send me your full name and address where I have to ship the keys and I will send you few MoneyGram locations near your home where you can send the money."
posted by merocet to Home & Garden (23 answers total)
Yes. This is a scam. I should know. I'm a detective.

(I am not a detective.)

Wire scams are super common on Craigslist. From
Craigslist's New York apartment classifieds are a con artist favorite

Fraud in New York City's Craigslist classifieds has become so pervasive that Craigslist has considered charging a fee for its ads. Their hope is that by putting a charge in place, they will discourage phony listings. Most of these fraudulent postings are common bait and switch schemes. However, some of the cases reported involved more elaborate schemes run by professional criminals. These scam artists have managed to bilk apartment seekers for thousands of dollars. Everyone knows how competitive the New York apartment market is, with too many people looking for far too few apartments. Some bold con artists have capitalized on this situation and used it to their advantage. In one of the worst cases we found a woman who promised a small studio apartment to several dozen different people. She collected enough money from each hopeful tenant in the form of rent and security deposits to make off with over $60,000. This may not be the most common apartment scam on Craigslist but it's not unique. People sub-renting the same apartment to multiple people and making off with their money are numerous enough that anyone using Craigslist or any other online service should thoroughly check out their landlord before handing over their money.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 6:11 AM on September 12, 2007

Aside from the scam, aren't you concerned about renting an apartment with the landlord not in the country (for FIVE YEARS)? What if something happens that you need the landlord to take care of?

This all seems like more trouble than its worth.

And yes, i'd avoid money transfers at all costs. Craigslist is notorious for them.
posted by modernsquid at 6:13 AM on September 12, 2007

It's a scam. Anything involving wiring funds is most likely a scam. If the guy was in a real situation like this he would have a proxy in NY handling renting of his apartment. I mean seriously, he is out of the country for five years and he wants to try renting the place long distance through Craigslist??
posted by JJ86 at 6:17 AM on September 12, 2007

I don't know about craigslist, but having dealt with many NYC apartments, I would stay the hell away from this. NYC apartment rental scams are not as uncommon as one would hope.
posted by R. Mutt at 6:18 AM on September 12, 2007

Thanks for your answers so far. They confirm my feelings, but looking at the details of the email he sent, how do these things play out? So I send some money to someone I know and email him the receipt from Moneygram as proof that I have the money. What happens next?
posted by merocet at 6:21 AM on September 12, 2007

What happens next?

you will have to re-send it on my name if you decide to take the apartment.

And then you won't hear from him again.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 6:29 AM on September 12, 2007

This is just the first part of the scam. That's why it looks innocent. They're building your trust before the big takedown. You're being groomed. First, they get you familiar with using a wire transfer service. Then they'll be another wire transfer (unmentioned as of yet).

Find another place.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 6:30 AM on September 12, 2007

He probably doesn't even own the place you're looking at. I remember seeing an article/blog post recently about a woman who started having prospective tenants come to her house for a visit, even though she doesn't want to move and never listed her apartment. She found the Craigslist add and responded, and initiated contact with the "owner". The fake person was putting pictures accompanying the ad that weren't of her apartment at all. The "owner" suggested a rent deposit and the fedex key scam, exactly the same as yours. They just keep taking your money, and many other people's money.
posted by Meagan at 6:36 AM on September 12, 2007

One possible version could be that he is working on the same "agreement" with many people.... that is, he somehow has access to the apt. for a limited time, lets you see and rent it, you get keys - send him 2 months rent. When you go to move in a month later, you find 20 other people who also have keys and sent him 2 months rent (and that he had no right to rent it out anyway). I remember the case beaucoupkevin mentions. I seem to remember that the women who scammed the renters had sublet the apt from one of her (completely innocent) friends for a month or two.
posted by R. Mutt at 6:39 AM on September 12, 2007

The story Meagan was referring to can be found on 3quarksdaily (and was then picked up by other major news outlets I believe).
posted by langeNU at 7:12 AM on September 12, 2007

This happens to landlords too. I advertised a sublet of my home and some of the emails involved wire transfers and advance payments and could I cash a check from a local since the potential tenant was overseas. Craigslist can be a real bad place to find renters or a home.
posted by jadepearl at 7:29 AM on September 12, 2007

Sometimes the receipt with the magic numbers is all they need to claim the cash, with lax or absent ID-checking on the other end.
posted by trevyn at 7:46 AM on September 12, 2007

Isn't this sort of transaction why they invented escrow? If there are normal and accepted ways of handling things you can usually assume that anyone avoiding them is either ignorant of normal procedures, a cheapskate, or a crook, any of which makes the deal worth avoiding.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:07 AM on September 12, 2007

Since this guy is grooming you for a scam, I wonder if you are in the right place to groom him for a bust. Regardless I would contact the proper authorities. (i.e. batman)
posted by jlowen at 9:13 AM on September 12, 2007

Just as an update he is currently accepting of my 17 dogs that have caused problems with their barking and defecating previously, my inability to pay more than $50 deposit, and my pungent cheese making hobby is not a problem with the neighbours.
posted by merocet at 9:30 AM on September 12, 2007 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure about Batman...maybe the Fantastic Four. More options, you know?
posted by SixteenTons at 9:35 AM on September 12, 2007

Despite the trouble I've gone through with Nigerian eBay scammers lately, this does not only happen with Nigeria.

Consider London, and the fabled P-P-P-Powerbook transaction...
posted by white light at 9:49 AM on September 12, 2007

Also consider the end of that story:

3) Finally, and most disturbingly, Jeff was not heard from again. I personally e-mailed him for permission to run his story on ZUG, but after an initial response, I never heard from him again. All of his Web sites have come down, and he is nowhere to be found.

Just stop responding. Don't fuck around with these people. You never know.
posted by white light at 10:00 AM on September 12, 2007

posted by CAnneDC at 2:52 PM on September 12, 2007

There's a group of people called scambaiters who will respond to scams for the sole purpose of stringing them along for as long as possible, with the goals of (1) embarrassing them and (2) keeping them occupied so hopefully they don't dupe someone else who isn't quite so smart. I was going to direct you over to which is a HILARIOUS collection of scambaiting (particularly of the Nigerian e-mail variety), but it's not loading right now (a bad omen! looks like someone is DDOS'ing them). Anyway, you can see this NPR piece where the 419eater creator warns people that you scambait at your own risk (a warning that's already on his website, if it were working). Like white light said... you never know what these guys are capable of.
posted by lou at 5:18 PM on September 12, 2007

white light: Jeff of P-P-Powerbook fame is still alive and posting on SomethingAwful as of last month, according to a search through their message board.
posted by MegoSteve at 8:21 PM on September 12, 2007

I don't know if you're still reading this thread, merocet, but my advice to any tenants seeking housing in New York City is to, at the minimum, always check the following two websites before you agree to rent: ACRIS, which is the Online City Register and will give you relatively uptodate information about ownership of property, and the Division of Housing and Community Renewal website, which provides prospective renters with a wealth of information about the unit they're thinking of moving into.

The order in which you should do this is to check the DHCR website first. After you put in the building address, take a look first at the history of violations in the unit you're thinking of renting, as well as in the building as a whole -- this will give you a sense of the structural integrity of the unit (pay attention to the difference between 'A', 'B', and 'C' violations) as well as how responsive the landlord is to tenant complaints, although it is not a completely accurate guide, since DHCR might take longer than normal to acknowledge repairs that have been completed. You can also be doubly diligent and search your building on the Department of Buildings website, where you can revel in such geeky documents as the Certificate of Occupancy and boiler and elevator inspection records.

After you're done with this part of your research, note the Tax Block and Tax Lot numbers for the building from the DHCR website. Next, go to ACRIS and input these two numbers when you're prompted to (to get started on ACRIS, choose the "Search Property Records" option, and then select "Parcel Identifier (Borough, Block, Lot)" option). This will then give you information about ownership, including who holds the mortgage on the building, and you can look at the original deed that was filed with the city.

Finally, if the unit you're thinking of moving into is rent stabilized (you should ask the landlord or realtor who shows you the place) you could always try to get a copy of the unit's Rent Regulation report from DHCR. This requires you to actually go to one of the DHCR offices, and you're not guaranteed to get it, because only tenants actually living in the unit are entitled to the report, but it's a wonderful way to make sure that you are not being overcharged before you even move in.*

I hope this is helpful to you and all other people hunting for housing in New York. Good luck in your search.

*Usual disclaimer -- I'm a lawyer, but I'm not your or any other Mefi member's lawyer. The above is not legal advice, nor does this post create a lawyer-client relationship between me and anybody who reads it.
posted by lassie at 9:54 PM on September 12, 2007 [7 favorites]

Fantastic stuff Lassie, Thanks.
posted by merocet at 11:01 PM on September 12, 2007

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