The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

December 14, 2013

Be careful who you deal with

Randy Meier
Columnist

---- — In October 2013, a woman from Southeast Iowa contacted me about a house she saw for rent. She wanted to move to Clinton and looked for a house by searching ads on Craigslist. I’ve written before about Craigslist. It’s a great way to buy and sell, at no charge, but you really need to be careful who you deal with.

The woman responded to the Craigslist ad, showing a house for rent in Clinton. She corresponded with the owner, who said he was out of town, serving on a mission trip in Alabama. He wanted $400 wired to him before agreeing to show the house. He planned to use this as the deposit if the woman signed the rental contract. The woman smelled a rat, and called me for advice.

I learned a property management company from Davenport owned this property, so I contacted them. They did not list it for rental. It seems someone found a photo of the house and used it to create a phantom rental ad on Craigslist. The property owner contacted Craigslist, who flagged and de-activated the listing. The property management company told me this type of thing happened repeatedly to them.

This anecdote illustrates the rental listing scam perfectly. Scammers know many people use online sites to look for apartment, house or vacation lodging rentals. They put themselves in the position to run a scam by hijacking real ads. They do this by finding a real ad online or in the real-estate listings, changing the email address or contact information, and running the altered ad on some other online site. Or they create a phantom rental, which is what happened to the woman who called me. Scammers created a listing for a place not for rent and advertised it.

How do you know if these ads are a scam? The surest sign of a scam is when the “property owner” wants the customer to wire money to pay for a security deposit, application fee, some portion of the initial rent payment or some other fee. I wrote many times on the pitfalls of using wire transfer services such as Western Union or Moneygram, and my advice is the same all the time. Don’t touch the wire.

Another clue is when the property agent or owner reports they are out of the country. This takes several variations, like the owner is serving overseas in the military, on an extended mission trip, or traveled overseas to handle the affairs of some relative who died. Such stories are never true, and if you hear such a story, keep looking for another place to rent.

If you think you are the target of a rental scam, I encourage you to report it to your local police and the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-382-4357, or www.ftc.gov. And contact the website or listing where you saw the ad. Almost all online sites give instructions on how to report fraud or abuse. Craigslist certainly does. You can also report such scams to me at Seniors vs. Crime, 242-9211, ext. 4433. I am always glad to look into these scams.

Scam trends

Several people phoned me in the last few weeks reporting very threatening phone calls from debt collectors. The callers threaten to send the police out with a warrant the next day if you don’t pay a substantial amount of your debt immediately, as in “today.” These callers almost always claim the debt arose out of internet payday loans, or in one case, with bad checks written eight or nine years ago. In some cases, these debt collectors make repeated calls to employers asking to talk to the employee.

I wrote about scam debt collectors before, but a short refresher is due, it seems. Legitimate debt collectors are held to a strict standard of conduct by law. Debt collectors who threaten to arrest you or get someone else to arrest you are perpetrating a hoax. They can’t do this.

Debtors’ prisons do not exist. It is probably worth it to talk to these debt collectors one time, to get their name, their company, their address and phone number. After that, hang up. You can then send a certified letter to the debt collector, demanding they stop contacting you. They must honor your demand. The Federal Trade Commission posts a great deal of information on debt collection practices on their website at www.ftc.gov. If you get a threatening debt collection call, give me a call and I can look into it with you.

The subject of internet payday loans, which seem to generate many of these debt collection complaints, is one I am researching now. I plan to write a future column on this topic. I already learned the practice of internet payday loans is full of potential for fraud and identity theft.

Randy Meier is the director of Seniors vs. Crime, which operates in conjunction with the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office.