South Shore couple duped in rent scam
About three years ago, life was good for Joe and Debbie Christensen. The couple just bought their first house in a Tahoe Valley neighborhood. Last year they were becoming business owners.
On Thursday, the two realized they would have to sell their house to make up for a loss totaling thousands of dollars caused by a scam becoming more and more familiar to law enforcement.
“We had no intention of selling it. Ever,” said Joe Christensen.
Trouble began when financial hardships forced Debbie to take another job. Furniture was sold. They placed an advertisement on a free online marketplace, Craigslist, for a roommate to rent out one of their four bedrooms.
“Somebody replied to us they were from Great Britain, coming here in January,” Debbie Christensen said.
The potential renter asked the couple if it would be OK to send money orders to cover a deposit and a couple month’s rent in order to reserve the room.
Sure, they said.
Another request was if the potential renter could send money orders far above the required amount with the difference being mailed back, saying he needed the extra cash.
OK, the Christensens said.
The first batch of seven $900 money orders arrived last week. They looked real. When cashed by the bank there was no problem. Everything was going as planned.
A day after receiving six more $900 money orders, Joe Christensen walked into US Bank on Thursday. There was a problem. His bank account was running a deficit of more than $4,000. The money orders were fake.
“It’s sickening,” he said at one point, realizing the devastation.
“It’s heart-breaking,” his wife said. “You want to trust people, but you can’t do that. You have to watch out for yourself.”
Calls were made to all parties involved: the bank, Fed Ex because the money orders arrived via courier, Yahoo! since the potential renter had an e-mail account, and the authorities.
“This is a very, very common scheme,” said Special Agent John Cauthen from the Sacramento branch of the FBI. “In the last two years it’s exploded in popularity.”
Further investigation revealed the money orders originated in Nigeria. With the Internet and its countless sources of items being sold online, such as eBay, crooks can easily find nonsuspecting people like the Christensens who fall into the trap.
Even people who use newspaper advertisements are susceptible since classifieds are often posted on the Web. When Cauthen was selling a car, he was contacted by a person overseas. Typically the scam is similar to that described by the Christensens.
“Smart people have fallen for this, and it’s extremely difficult to detect,” Cauthen said. “You have to be literally a computer expert to know you’re dealing with someone who is not who they say they are.”
One person who resisted the international solicitations is Jim Kotcher, owner of Mail Boxes Etc.
A few months ago Kotcher put an ad on the Web sites of Craigslist and AutoTrader regarding the sale of his tricked-out 1987 Mazda RX-7 for $5,000. Kotcher said he received two bites, both from e-mail, from people wanting to send him more money than the sale price so “agents” could pick up the car and drive it to Canada.
Two separate cashier checks arrived. One was from a “bogus” bank in Minnesota that failed to have an address and phone number, while the other was from Bank of America.
Understanding how such checks appear and having some knowledge of the anatomy of scams, Kotcher had his bank and FBI investigate the matter.
“I would never (give up) the property until the check clears,” Kotcher said. “You never know who you’re dealing with, especially on the Internet.”
Joe Christensen blames the bank for his troubles.
“They know what to look for,” he said. “They accepted them.”
US Bank Branch Manager Kathy Barela said the responsibility falls on customers.
“There is no way to guarantee money orders because we’re not the issuer,” she said.
Authorities said there are few things to determine if people are in the midst of such a scam. First of all, they said, be wary of people in different countries wanting to purchase an item and delivering a story on how they need to pay more than the price so they can receive money back.
Secondly, make sure the money order, cashier check or travelers check is legitimate and authentic. The best way is to contact the institution issuing the funds.
The money orders the Christensens received were cashed a year ago, said South Lake Tahoe police officer Schyler Beaty. He didn’t know how they could cycle back into use.
“I hate to say ‘use common sense,’ but anything that sounds too good to be true usually is,” said police Sgt. Cam Carmichael. “It’s a shame these people got duped, but there’s not much we can do can about it.”
“Anytime you’re being asked to send money to a foreign country, you have to be extremely cautious, unless you know the person the money is going to,” said Cauthen, the FBI agent.
Cauthen said arrests have been made regarding such scams and people reporting their stories to authorities is useful in investigations.
Barela advised people to look at the date on the cashier check or money order. If it has a date close to the time when the funds are received, be leery. Joe Christensen pointed to how the second batch of money orders had a date of Jan. 9, when Fed Ex had a shipping date of Jan. 8.
“How did it get here so fast?” Barela asked. “You see what I’m saying?”
Joe Christensen said he had to borrow money to help get by. The couple wants to stay in Tahoe, but were in enough despair Thursday that they had no concrete plans. Joe Christensen was angry at times. His wife wanted to get the word out, to warn others.
“Every commercial you see about travelers checks and money orders say they’re as good as cash,” Joe Christensen said. “No they’re not.”
Anyone suspicious of a money order, cashier check or similar funds should contact authorities or their bank. Anyone who is a victim of a scam involving fraudulent funds should visit http://www.ic3.gov, an Internet Crime Complaint Center, to report their information.
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