Apartment Scam

This is a story about how a scammer attempted to sell me an apartment he or she (I suspect she for reasons that will show up later so I’ll probably go with that pronoun) did not own. Its an interesting example with lessons that many of us have heard but are worth reiterating:

  • Don’t rent or buy property you haven’t seen.
  • Don’t wire money without significant verification.

It began with an ad on a Facebook group for housing in Portland. I responded, asking for pictures and more information. It looked good so I asked for a time to see it, but didn’t see a response for three days. This is the part that amazes me. Going silent is a pretty normal thing for a person to do, but not for a scammer. I’m so used to scammers vomiting their shtick at me and then demanding a response or money like a baby bird calling for food. So after three days, when she gave me her shtick, she seemed to act like a real person:

Hello Walter,
I am sorry for the delay in replies, been quite busy settling in..just moved back to France so I am just settling in..Yes you can go look at it. I can give you the address but you may not be able to go into the Apartment, I have sent adequate pictures though. I was looking for someone to rent before I traveled but had no luck. I had an agreement with someone to show the apartment in my absence but something came up on her end and she won’t be able to do that.
But if we come to an agreement I will courier the keys to you after signing the lease agreement and you can move in anytime it suits you as it is available. I think you will Find attached pictures in my earlier email. I got the Apartment in the Divorce but I am taking much needed time off to enjoy life as I used to know it as I just got out of a very degrading and abusive short-lived marriage…Anyway’s let me know what you decide.
Rent is $980 and a security deposit of same amount is needed to move in so in all $1960.00 to move in..Accommodation in this area is easily much more than this but I would rather not have it sitting empty and because of my unavailability I am being considerate but its a limited time offer..
If you’d like to visit here’s the address:
88 Park street, Apt 25
Portland
ME 04101
Get back to me and let me know your decision. If we come to an agreement, I will have my lawyer draw up a lease agreement to the effect stating my liability if it is not as described..

Foolishly, I didn’t fuss about not seeing it and trusted the pictures and the outside of the apartment. So I said asked about lease and payment. We maintained a coherent and friendly conversation during which she sent the lease and I signed it and returned. I suspect the lease was based on a real one because it was pretty reasonable.

Then I asked about payment. Getting money to France sounded tricky, so I offered a variety of options. Paypal, for example, offers an international transfer service that’s extremely cheap. She wanted me to pay her friend, who would pass the money off to her and she wanted me to pay her friend by wire, who could well be the real identity of the scammer:

Bank of America
Account Holder:Sharon Y Lewis
Account number is 383014488335
Routing number is 031202084
Wire transfer is BOFAUS3N

Wiring money seemed like an odd choice because its relatively expensive and there weren’t clear reasons for doing so. I also didn’t know how to wire money. I suggested several alternatives and became somewhat suspicious at her illogical reasons for insisting on wiring. Around this point I asked for verification that she owned the damn thing.

The Assessor’s Office of Portland Maine has a very helpful online search tool for just this purpose. But that particular apartment was not listed. I called and received a couple possible reasons. The Tax Roll, also accessed from the Assessor’s Office site, was more helpful and gave me the ownership from July as the heirs of a deceased couple. This wasn’t very helpful because property from someone’s estate could well have a new owner by now. Fortunately, further poking around revealed a realtor selling the apartment, who told me over the phone that the apartment was definitely not available for rent.

As I resumed my search for housing, this time casting my eye towards more legitimate and reliable sources, I received another email from the scammer, this time with the “verification.” This included a copy of her passport, an electric bill, and the divorce papers giving her possession of the apartment.

Barbara PassportOne of the advantages of using a French identity is that I have no idea what a French passport should look like. The only error I can find is in the font color of the added text. All the real text is blue and the added text is black. But I’m not even confident of that.

The electric bill was sloppy. It was based on an example bill freely available online and one of the address areas was still contained the original address for one Jane Doe in Anywhere Maine. The added text also stands out from the original scanned page.

The divorce papers were another type of document I have no experience in. My only comment is that actual divorce related paperwork would have many many more pages and more legalese.

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Obviously contact ended as soon as I acknowledged the scam. I am left with several questions. How many people expressed interest in the apartment and how many actually paid up? Was Sharon really her real name? Did she hack out those documents because I asked for them, or did she have them handy? Sadly, I received no more responses.

Anyway, that’s the story. If anyone has information to offer, commentary is appreciated. Do the legal documents look realistic? How hard would it be to produce better looking documents? Is there a good way to know if a picture of a passport is real or not?

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