If you are hoping to lease a house and using the Internet to search for properties, Craigslist might be among the many sites you visit. But if you aren't careful, a new scam just might cost you a bit of cash.
The fraud involves lifting information about a property from one Web site, and placing it verbatim — pictures included — on Craigslist as a rental. The scammer carefully explains the bargain rent or the need to work remotely since he "must suddenly leave the country for work."
Recently, Joanne DeMase, a property management manager with Alliance Realty in Spring Hill, discovered that her name and several of her company's properties in Hernando County had been listed on Craigslist under this type of scam.
The fake ad included a blurb about DeMase, making it appear as though she owned the home and was moving to England for work. She wasn't interested in price, but was seeking a tenant who would take good care of her home, the ad said.
DeMase learned about the impersonation when she received an e-mail from a prospective tenant. It included an e-mail exchange from a third party using a Yahoo e-mail address and a variation of DeMase's name. There was no mention of where to send money, but the e-mail was riddled with grammatical errors, a common tip-off to potential fraudulent online transactions.
The properties have since been removed from Craigslist, said DeMase, who filed an identity theft report with the Hernando County Sherriff's Office.
"You cannot trust the Internet," said Hernando County Detective Jeff Kraft. "You have to verify what you see."
Kraft recommends additional research, such as going directly to a real estate company's Web site, to verify that you are dealing directly with a real person and not an international scam artist.
Craigslist officials did not respond to a query from the St. Petersburg Times.
Consumers should run a quick check when they see identical or similar ads, said Marla Martin, communications manager with the Florida Association of Realtors. She also warned consumers to keep an eye out for grammatical errors, information from overseas or ads seeking money upfront.
"Money upfront is never a good thing," she said.
While reports of the new scam haven't surfaced in other Tampa Bay counties yet, this type of fraud appears to be growing nationally, with recent reports filed in South Carolina. Officials there say it may have originated in Nigeria.
In addition to contacting local police, victims of fraud or identity theft are encouraged to file a report with the FBI at www.ic3.gov, Martin said.
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.