Students looking for roommates on Craigslist might want to reconsider assertive respondents potentially posing as international students.
Students that have used Craigslist to search for sub-leasers of vacant rooms have recently fallen victim to a trend of scams called advance fee fraud.
Tuong Ha, a senior neurobiology, physiology and behavior major, is one student victim of this scam. After posting an advertisement on Craigslist this past summer to fill an empty room in his apartment, he was contacted by someone named “Sammie”.
“She said that ‘I’m coming from Malaysia to further my studies and needed a place to stay immediately,'” Ha said.
Sammie sent a cashier’s check to Ha for $3500 although the requested amount for the first month of rent with a deposit fee was $1200. After Ha received the cashier’s check in the mail, he deposited it at his bank.
A few days later Sammie said that she needed money for her plane ticket to the U.S. and requested $2720 to be wired back. Ha wired the money through Western Union. Two weeks later, the deposited cashiers check bounced. Ha lost his $2720.
“I could have cancelled [the transaction] but [Sammie] had already accepted it,” Ha said.
Sergeant Scott Smith of the Detective Division of the Davis Police Department (DPD) said these types of scams started coming into his office four to five years ago.
“There are about 20 to 30 reported cases a year in Davis alone,” Smith said, who has been with DPD for 28 years.
A number of cases remain unreported because people feel embarrassed, see no point in reporting or are fortunate to catch onto the scam and not wire money over, Smith said.
Suspects are typically out of the country and usually use Craigslist as a medium, Smith said.
“Forums like Craigslist are like Petri dishes for fraud,” Smith said.
Kenneth Huang, a senior community and regional development major, almost fell victim to advance fee fraud.
Huang posted an advertisement through Craigslist for a sub-leaser during summer 2009.
“I got three replies from three different people but it was suspicious because they responded all in the same manner with the same format,” he said. “They were also very assertive because they said that ‘I need a place to stay fast and I’m coming from an outside country'”.
Of the three who contacted Huang, he chose “Maryanne” who said she was from the United Kingdom. A teller at Huang’s bank – Chase Bank – caught the fake personal check of $3000 before he could deposit it.
Along with Craigslist, scammers have also infiltrated Facebook and respond to advertisements posing as students.
Shirley Gao, a junior psychology major, posted an ad on Facebook’s Market Place to sell a math book for $60 and was contacted by a scammer who she suspects is from Ireland. The scammer first e-mailed her expressing interest in the book. Over their three-month correspondence, he created a story of needing money to cover shipping fees to send school items, other than the book, from the U.S. to Ireland. He eventually asked Gao as a favor to wire him $1000.
“Everything started to make sense when he started asking me to transfer money,” Gao said.
Gao then filed a report with the Davis Police.
“They told me there’s no way that they can track the person even though I have their mailing address and e-mail. He could be anywhere in the world because his information is most likely fake,” Gao said.
Craigslist has taken some steps in response to the increase of advance fee fraud to warn their website users. There is an informational section on their webpage with rules on how to avoid scams and fraud.
“NEVER WIRE FUNDS VIA WESTERN UNION, MONEYGRAM or any other wire service – anyone who asks you to do so is a scammer,” according to Craigslist webpage. “FAKE CASHIER CHECKS & MONEY ORDERS ARE COMMON, and BANKS WILL CASH THEM AND THEN HOLD YOU RESPONSIBLE when the fake is discovered weeks later.”
Smith said that regardless of how someone portrays themselves over the internet, they are still a stranger.
“The biggest thing suspects prey on is greed, desperation and trust,” he said. “Never under any circumstance wire money to someone that you don’t know.”
JULIA SAELEE can be reached at email@example.com.