April 15, 2008 at 8:00 AM ET
Diane Siddons got the call from Brandie Darnell in the middle of the day. Darnell had seen Siddons' house advertised for rent on Craigslist and thought it was a smokin' deal: $800 a month for a five bedroom house in a Tampa Bay, Fla., suburb.
Only one problem: Siddons' house wasn't for rent. She hadn't placed any advertisement on Craigslist. Instead, a con artist had lifted photos of her home and placed them on the site as bait.
The ad made the home sound perfect for a small family, with 2.5 baths and a nice yard. Even cable TV was included. The price wasn't completely out of line, so Darnell got the address from the alleged seller and drove by to see the place. She spotted a "for sale" sign with a real estate agent's phone number on it and, after a brief phone call, learned she had been caught in an attempted scam.
Put Siddons on a small but growing list of Internet crime victims who never face the prospect of losing money. Instead their property or identity is borrowed for use in a ruse.
The con is simple. The alleged renter lures an apartment seeker with a realistic-looking ad -- so realistic that the pictures match the address, so the ad will pass a drive-by test. But when the home-seeker contacts the renter, there's no way to get inside the home. The renter supposedly is traveling, or on a two-year assignment in some distant place. "Send a deposit," the con artists writes, "and I'll send the keys."
"It was really unnerving," Siddons said. "We were concerned that someone would knock on my door and say, 'Hey, we just rented this place, get out!'"
No one knows how many people are victimized by faux Craigslist ads – the firm says it's a tiny fraction of 30 million monthly posts – but clearly, fake ads are hitting some people hard.
Manhattan apartment hunted
Beth Ann Blovino had her New York City apartment listed for rent on Craigslist by a con artist last year. For nearly two months, she had unwanted visitors knocking on her door and some resourceful apartment hunters even called. Blovino's place wasn't for rent, either. Getting rid of the harassment wasn't easy. She contacted Craigslist and had the ads removed, but the con artists simply replaced them each time.
When Blovino blogged about her experience, she said she heard from other victims all around North America.
In many cases, the victims' house or apartment actually is for sale, and the photographs used in the Craigslist rental ads are stolen from actual real estate listings. That was the case for both Blovino and Siddons. The two decided to go along with the con for a while in an attempt to catch the criminal. They share their e-mail exchange with MSNBC.com.
The person who claimed to be renting Siddons' home, supposedly a woman named Lucii Wilkes, wrote to a prospective renter that "We got transferred to West Africa (Nigeria) for a missionary assignment, and all the keys and the document of the flat are with me right here. I will send the keys to you to go there and view it once the payment is made."
Call it home ID theft. Any would-be renter who sends payment in response never gets into the apartment or house.
A much more severe form of home ID theft occurred last month in Oregon, when a man in Jacksonville lost many of his belongings after a suspect posted his address on Craigslist and said all his belongings were free for the taking. In that case, police say, the motive was a cover-up -- police have arrested two suspects who allegedly posted the ad to obscure their own thefts from the home. A similar hoax last year outside Seattle saw a woman's home ransacked after a hoax ad was placed offering her belongings for free.
Other faux Craigslist ads are a problem, too. It's easy to find a smattering of revenge-motivated personal ads, for example.
As is true for the rest of the Internet, there is no way to stop criminals from posting unauthorized pictures, advertisements or falsehoods on Craigslist. Nor is there a way to stop someone from putting a picture of your apartment or home on bogus advertisements.
But malicious posts are rare, says Jim Buckmaster, CEO of Craigslist.
"Any number of these constitutes a problem, but out of 30 million postings a month, the percent of criminal postings is a rounding error," he said.
Craigslist's tiny staff couldn't possibly spot every fraudulent post on the site, Buckmaster said, but a robust system of community policing takes care of most fraud. Users who spot suspicious posts "flag" them, and after an undisclosed number of flags, the posts are removed. It's almost impossible for flagging to catch fake house-for-rent, ads, however, so Craigslist also works with law enforcement officials to catch those criminals, Buckmaster said.
As the suspects in the Oregon case have learned, Craigslist postings are not as anonymous as criminals might believe.
"Every story like this has the same punch line, which is the perpetrators are apprehended and brought to justice," he said.
But not in every case.
Blovino believes the con artist who used her apartment as bait is safely hiding half a world away in Africa. Siddons, meanwhile, had no luck getting the local police or the FBI interested in her case. She was directed to fill out a complaint form online, and has yet to hear from any law enforcement officer. To make matters worse, she hasn't sold her house yet, either.
But her biggest concern is that someone who's not as clever as Darnell might actually fall for a fake ad using her home -- meaning a criminal will earn money from her property even while she's still trying to sell it. The con artists run an elaborate ruse, she said.
"They send an application. It talks about the owner being a good Christian woman. There's an online questionnaire. It's very thorough," Siddons said. By the time she contacted msnbc.com, she said she had already tried the police, the FBI, and Craigslist to no avail. "Results: My house is still listed for rent with Craigslist. ... I'm concerned that someone will send eventually send money."