An unoccupied rental house in Tacoma, Wash., was plundered to its moorings after someone apparently impersonating the landlord posted a too-good-go-be-true ad on Craigslist inviting people to take anything they wanted.
Neighbors told NBC affiliate KING-TV of Seattle that strangers hauled off virtually everything last weekend — appliances, light fixtures, the front door and even, as cliched as it sounds, the kitchen sink.
It was not immediately clear Thursday how big a role the ad — which invited Craigslist users to “help yourself to anything on the property” — played in the ransacking of the house, whose tenant had recently been evicted.
Jim Buckmaster, Craigslist’s chief executive, told MSNBC.com that the ad appeared on the site for only little more than an hour last Friday and was removed after it was “flagged” by other users as questionable.
Buckmaster said Craigslist, which publishes hundreds of thousands of free classified ads a day on sites for dozens of cities, had given the information it had on the ad to police and to the owner and landlord, Laurie Raye.
“Hopefully, law enforcement will crack this case quickly,” he said.
Tacoma police said they considered the case a civil matter.
‘I don’t have enemies’
Raye said Thursday that the house had been her mother’s. She said she had recently evicted the tenant who was renting it and removed the tenant’s belongings.
“This was a home that I kept for my mother,” Raye said in an interview with MSNBC-TV’s Chris Jansing. “I’ve had to protect her from people trying to commit fraud and live off of her.”Video: ‘I couldn’t even imagine’
“I don’t have enemies other than people I’ve had to deal with,” she added, without identifying whom she suspected.
Raye said she couldn’t understand how the house could be stripped bare without anyone figuring out that something was wrong.
“It was done during the daytime,” she told MSNBC. “There were cars parked all along a one-block area.”
Eventually, a relative “happened to drive by and noticed the front doors and front windows were missing from the home,” Raye said. “When I drove over there that evening, I was astounded to see the destruction that was done.”
She said: “It hurts. I was attached to this home because it used to be my mom’s.”
No screening of ads
“This can happen to anybody, but look what happened to me,” Raye said in a separate interview with KING.
Gretchen Ellis, a spokeswoman for the Tacoma police, told KING that this was not the department’s first encounter with Craigslist.
“We’ve had a lot of scams off of Craigslist,” she said. “We’ve had prostitution things happen, rental scams, fraudulent activity. In this case, it appeared the items were going to be given away, but they were not.”
Buckmaster told MSNBC.com that the site gets 25 million new posts each month, making hands-on policing of content impossible. Most questionable advertisements are removed after being spotted by users through the flagging system. The ads are removed automatically after a certain threshold of complaints is reached, Buckmaster said.
History of impersonation
Fake ads that impersonate victims and lead to harassment have been a problem for the site in the past.
“The more typical harassment case of this genre comes in the context of a divorce or breakup, where the party will post a message impersonating the former spouse,” Buckmaster said.
In March, a Tennessee man and his new lover were arrested for allegedly posting a fake ad about his ex-wife. One ad suggested that the woman’s furniture was up for sale; another hinted that she was available for sexual visits.
Another recent scam involves criminals impersonating apartment owners, indicating that their units were up for rent. Con artists post fake ads of the victims’ apartments in densely populated areas like Manhattan, complete with accurate street-view photos.
Because the rental markets in some locations are so competitive, criminals sometimes persuade renters to send deposit checks without seeing the inside. But victims often face creepy drive-by inspections from potential renters.
“We don’t like to see the site abused for this purpose. No one does,” Buckmaster said. But impersonation cases are “hard to prevent by their very nature.”
Mike Brunker, Bob Sullivan and Alex Johnson of MSNBC.com and Chris Jansing of MSNBC-TV contributed to this report.