LEWISTON— The Craigslist ad was for a roommate to share a home in Lewiston, convenient to downtown. It was $800 a month, month to month it was OK, pets OK, plus a $500 bond. The pictures looked promising.
I asked. I received an email asking me to complete a rental application. He asked for a social security number, which should have been a flashing red flag.
In my case, it was simply a Craigslist encoded email that I replied to, not a Nigerian or South American email address. I was less than 10 days away from starting my new job in Lewiston, and finding a short-term rental proved harder and more expensive than I’ve ever experienced in more than a dozen moves around my adult life.
After submitting the application, another email asked me to transfer a $200 application fee, which would go toward the $500 deposit. Red flag #2. I felt uncomfortable but compelled to pull the trigger and make sure I had a place to stay while I looked for a house to buy.
The “owner” used the name Kathy Castillo. Then they wanted the $200 to be delivered via Cash App. Red Flag #3. This web-based payment app only allows debit cards, not credit cards, making it nearly impossible to get a refund from your bank or credit union. It is also not accredited by the Better Business Bureau and thousands of complaints have been filed against Cash App for a myriad of reasons.
I sent it anyway in desperation. I immediately felt that something was very wrong. I should have followed my instincts. Later that day, another email and text arrived asking for the remainder of the deposit and the first month’s rent, for a total of an additional $1,100. Alarm bells went off in my head. Finally, I got the message.
I replied that I needed a few days to collect the funds, since I had just paid my rent in Tennessee. It was a Thursday. I agreed to send the balance on Tuesday. I started looking for Kathy Castillo in Maine. Two games, none at Lewiston. I googled the address of the house listed in the Craigslist ad and found a real estate listing from May 2021, showing that the house had been sold. I looked at the photos and they looked exactly the same in the Craigslist ad.
Upon closer inspection, there was a watermark on the images from the local real estate company. I searched the Androscoggin County Deeds Registry website for the address of the house “for rent”. Bingo! But the owner’s name was not listed as Kathy Castillo.
I called the real estate company listed on Zillow and lucked out. The agent I spoke with would contact the agent who sold the house and get back to me. In less than 30 minutes, I heard the news. The landlord hadn’t advertised on Craigslist and wasn’t looking for a roommate. Neighbors had recently told the owner that they had spotted her home on Craigslist and notified her. My heart skipped a beat.
I later found out that the owner had flagged the ad on Craigslist, stating it was suspicious, only to have it pop up and reappear shortly after.
Imagine if I showed up at the address the following Monday with my U-Haul in tow and knocked on the door? The owner would have had every right to call the police or pepper spray me, and I would still need a place to stay. I called my bank to try to get my money back, which I now know will not happen.
Tuesday passed and I was dreading it. I knew the scammer would contact me for more money. How could I handle it? What would I say? At 11am I got a text, a casual greeting and how are you today? “Just message me when you send money to Cash App. I have to go to some meetings.
My response was to the point: “The template is in place. I know it’s a scam. You do not own the property and I have reported you to the police, the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission. You better make yourself rare.
I’m sure they had a good laugh. They simply replied, “How do you mean?”
I may never see my $200, but I was not duped further into the scam. I booked a room at the local extended stay hotel, where I knew I would be safe and had a guaranteed reservation.
This is just one of the rental scams, but they all follow a similar pattern. The key is to recognize the red flags and protect yourself to avoid what happened to me or worse.
Brenda Fontaine, founder of real estate company The Fontaine Family Group in Auburn, and her daughter Crystal Fontaine Bergeron warn that there are other scams they see in the area.
“Foreclosures are another problem (for potential tenants),” Brenda Fontaine said, referring to empty homes that go through the foreclosure process because the previous owner didn’t keep up the mortgage payments. “The previous owner gets the money back and doesn’t pay the mortgage.” The tenant is holding the bag when the bank or another official comes knocking on the door.
Rent-to-own housing is another segment targeted by real estate business thieves. They too are often linked to foreclosures. The Fountains warns potential tenants to check the online database for deeds by address in the city or county where you wish to rent. This search will show the owner and the date of the sale. You should also search public records for seizures. The Fountains suggest you call the city or county if you need help locating documents. The staff are very helpful.
NOT JUST CRAIGSLIST
Craigslist is named by the Maine Attorney General’s Office as one of the websites where rental scams are rampant. But also beware of Facebook Marketplace. Three recent examples from Texas and Kentucky were pointed out to me by a real estate agent. In each case, the poster uses the same name, which we’ve blued in the photos accompanying this story, and even has a Facebook page, which has little to no information or contact details listed. No address is listed for any of the three ads.
One from Texas reads: “Renovated 1800 sq. ft. 3 bedroom, 2 bath home for $700 a month, no down payment required, bad credit, no problem!” The median rent for a three-bedroom house in Abilene ranges from $1,200 to $1,800, according to zumper.com, so the $700 rent should be a red flag.
And the language used in two of the ads is strikingly similar: “My aunt is urgently looking for a family…” and “My mother is urgently looking for a family…”
The Sun Journal could not confirm the ads are scams, but they have many red flags that consumer advocates are warning about. The thing is, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Do your research and ask questions if warning bells are ringing.
Cash App parent company Block, formerly Square, is under investigation by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and multiple state attorneys general over its Cash App service, according to a March 4 Bloomberg article. .
The bureau requested information from Block, including details about Cash App’s handling of “customer complaints and disputes,” according to the report. Block said it was cooperating with all parties, and the company added it was “not possible to reliably determine potential liability” with respect to the investigation.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, complaints against Cash App have increased by 472% in one year, from 735 complaints in 2019 to 4,204 in 2020.