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Watchdog column: Be cautious before renting property through Craigslist

By Jessica Priest
April 23, 2013 at 8:04 p.m.
Updated April 23, 2013 at 11:24 p.m.


To report a scam artist impersonating a Publishers Clearing House representative, call 1-800-645-9242 or visit fraud.org.

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To submit questions, email watchdog@vicad.com. No topic is off-limits.

Reynolds Tharp was surprised when four people knocked on his door earlier this month asking to rent his one-story Victoria home for about $800 a month.

The 67-year-old had put the house up for sale, not for rent.

They saw an unauthorized advertisement for the house on Craigslist, one in which someone from out of the state or even out of the country told the prospective customers to send them a deposit without ever viewing the property beforehand.

Luckily, the four people who visited Tharp hadn't opened their wallets yet.

"I wasn't the one being scammed. It's the people who were coming to my house that I was concerned for," Tharp said.

Area realtors are combating false listings more now that Victoria's housing market has tightened with the economic boom from Eagle Ford Shale.

The Craigslist posters keep a keen eye on the Victoria Area Realtors Association's Multiple Listing Service and simply copy and paste the photos or other relevant information. The supposed landlords urge the consumer to contact them instead of a credible management company. They disappear after they have received their money.

"As busy as we are, we can't watch Craigslist all the time," Tharp's realtor, John Quitta, of RE/MAX, said, adding the posters used about eight of his clients' listings in the past eight months.

And sometimes, common sense goes out the window when people are on a time crunch to find a place before they start a new job, Rhonda Griffin, who manages some 150 Crossroads area properties, said.

Selling sight unseen is rare. Griffin, a real estate agent at All Star Properties, vets each tenant through a Texas Association of Realtors' application, which runs a credit and background check for a fee.

To avoid becoming a victim, simply pick up a phone book and call the agency listing the house - not the number on Craigslist ad, Alan Bligh, the regional director of the Better Business Bureau in Corpus Christi, said.

"If you can't see the place and you are supposed to wire money, forget it," Bligh said.

Craigslist users may also flag fraudulent postings as "spam" or "prohibited" by clicking links at the top of the page.



You have won - if you pay

Homes are not the only things being scammed. Some people are being told they won the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes.

Shirley Hood tried to avoid continuos phone calls from a Jamaican man who called earlier this month, claiming to be a Publishers Clearing House representative. He said all she would need to do to claim a $850,000 prize was travel to her area Wal-Mart and obtain a money order. Hood, 79, would then give the money to a stranger in the parking lot.

"I said, 'How could I have won a prize? I don't think we've even entered,'" Hood said.

She dismissed the man, but he's relentless. She thinks the man combed area obituaries to discover her husband died of a heart attack in July.

"Maybe they assume that whoever was the moneymaker in the family is gone," Hood, of Victoria, said.

Hood's experience is not unique as some 360,000 calls are placed each day from Jamaica to United States households, Bligh said, citing a recent federal investigation.

The scam artists, who are intelligent and high-tech oriented, often escalate to threatening people.

He said there is no law to bring those responsible to justice.

The about 50-year-old Publishers Clearing House never asks consumers to pay to receive prize money. It also only notifies major winners through the mail or in person, according to its website.

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