OUTSMART THE HOUSING SCANS
Once I decided to transfer to Emerson University in Boston, I started to work on finishing all the procedures needed for enrollment.
Transcript? Done. Health information? Done.
Housing? That was basically the only thing I have been worrying about since I applied to the school. But I spent most of my time searching for the one that suited me the best.
It was hard because Boston is now the fourth most expensive city for renters in the U.S. According to apartment-finding site Zumper, the median price for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,300 per month.
It was also hard because the tuition at Emerson is expensive as hell. I told myself to keep the rent budget similar to what I am paying in Shoreline. Therefore, the price was literally the only criteria I had for renting a room.
So I went to some homestay sites and apartments.com, the site I always use to search for housing, and set the maximum price at $800. (Okay, I know it sounds dumb but at that time, I just wanted to see if there were some extreme cases where the house was too old to be expensive.)
Most likely, renting an unfurnished room in a shared house not close to the college would be around $900.
My sights eventually landed on a $670 furnished one-bedroom condo. I thought it was a typo as it was too cheap to be true. But I still contacted the “property owner” to see if it really was a miracle.
A day later, a person named McClain Thomas with the email address [email protected] shot me an email, saying that he was actually looking for a person to rent the unit at a monthly price of $670, which already included the furnished unit and utilities.
He was renting it out because he had gone to Las Vegas “for a divine call to preach the word of God to the people out here.” He said he intended to sell the unit but his “lovely wife” convinced him to keep it for a future purpose.
I was in class, but I almost screamed when I received the email. I carefully responded with the completed application form, a form he had attached to the email, and a detailed self-introduction. I prayed that my organized application and polite attitude would impress him.
I swear I clicked “reply” to send him the email. Yet, the receiver’s email was different when I checked it later. It was [email protected].
I didn’t even ask why it was so cheap, why the email address was different or why he was asking for a valid ID (fortunately I didn’t give it to him since my passport wasn’t with me at the time).
Twelve hours later, he sent me an email titled, “YOUR APPLICATION FORM HAS BEEN ACCEPTED . KINDLY GET BACK TO ME ASAP.” (yes, it was in all caps with the period in the middle of the two spaces) with a different name, Motley W. Howlett.
He said my application was “very satisfactory” to his family. He told me he was renting the place to me based on trust, “so please do not disappoint us and i promise you that, you will love the unit.” Since he was not in Boston anymore, he planned to send me the key and documents to my current address through UPS once I paid the first month rent and security deposit, a total of $1340, through Moneygram.
I didn’t know anything about Moneygram — I assumed it was like Venmo or PayPal.
I sent it to my family chat groups, shouting “thank god” and getting approval from them. They even sent me the money I needed and I was ready to send the money at Albertsons the next day.
I must emphasize that the email ended with “I await an email from you…”
I replied to him with a couple more questions regarding the rental terms. He didn’t answer with much, but explained to me once again how to pay via Moneygram.
My skepticism was aroused (I know it was late, but at least it wasn’t even later). I was very careful as it was a lot of money.
I asked him if we could sign the contract first before I sent him the money. I told him I hoped he would understand, since there were lots of scam cases happening in the rental market.
Soon he replied: “Sincerely it's very annoying whenever i hear people taking advantage on others … Its very bad and i pray that such will never happen to any of us. I want you to trust this transaction with all your mind, my hands are clean and my mind is open.
“I await your response soon..”
He nagged me again in the email about the payment process, so he could send the key to me as soon as possible.
I thought perhaps either an exact contract file or a proof of ownership would make me feel less suspicious. So I asked him to provide me one.
At the same time, I searched on Google to take a look at other housing scams. And darn it, they were similar to that email I received.
Claiming to be a priest or pastor, having a similar application form, similar writing style, punctuation mistakes and “awaiting” for my reply as always.
At this point, he probably smelled my doubts.
“Look Frances i am sending you my ID, and you can find me if you wait till the whole of tomorrow and it not delivered to you , you can report me to the police . But why will i do such thing at first . That's against my doctrine and i will never do anything that will tarnish my image OK. Just try go and send it with the information i sent to you OK.”
He replied five hours later with an attachment showing the Tennessee driver’s license of Wesley Howlett Motley, III.
This had become fun. I figured out that it was a legitimate driver’s license from a person of the same name.
From that point, I found a person who was a film producer and an actor with the same name, birth date, height, and address on IMDb. But his bio picture was totally different from the one on the driver’s license, which probably meant the scammer stole the ID to create a fake one.
But just in case he gained tremendous weight this year and made his face look different, I decided it was time for the final round of fact-checking.
I searched the Massachusetts Land Records website for the apartment’s address to see the mortgage and transaction documents. In the end, the unit was actually owned by a bachelor who didn’t have any relationship with the person I was exchanging emails with.
At that point, I felt empty. Now I had to start looking for an apartment all over again.
I guess the initial email from McClain Thomas came from the scammer forgetting to change the name after copying it from the previous scam.
I had Googled the email address and there were still four different listings located in four different places available for inquiries.
Dude, you went after the wrong person. I am young and naive, but I am also a journalist.
The problem with online scams is that they are hard to track and all too common, so it’s difficult for the police to do anything. I went to both the Shoreline and Seattle police departments, but the responses I got were just “sorry we couldn’t help” and “good job in doing research.”
Despite the inability to report a case, you can still protect yourself from falling into the trap by being a skilled researcher before renting a house.
Steps to Avoid Frauds
1. Conduct research on properties
This is by far the most basic thing you have to do before actually contacting the property owner. The only tool you need is Google. While most of the scammers get pictures of a real property from online real estate website, such as Zillow and Redfin, you will always find the actual listing online by putting the address into Google. From that, you can see the actual property selling price and you will be able to tell if there is a big gap between prices.
2. Pay attention to payment methods
Imagine if you pay a landlord in cash; they could deny receiving your money without leaving any payment record. And if you are a scammer, would you leave any tracks for the police to find you out? Of course not!
Therefore, scammers typically like to ask you to pay in cash or even in cash equivalents, such as Moneygram, Bitcoin and MoneyPak, which are difficult to trace.
And no matter what, you should never pay a landlord in cash without a foundation of trust.
3. Be aware of dramatic stories
“I have received a job assignment abroad and have to rent the apartment out ASAP.” “Due to our job as missionaries, we spend less time in the States.” By telling you these stories, the scammer has an excuse for not showing you the house, not meeting you in person, not having a written contract and not using a traceable payment method.
P.S. They always claim to be missionaries or priests, to make you to think they are religious, kind and trustworthy.
4. Use your language sense
This may sound weird, but it is actually a very common mistake of scammers around the world. Oftentimes scammers are very careless in their writing. You’ll be able to find grammar mistakes throughout the whole email.
I am sure you could tell in my case since the scammer used a lowercase “i,” put the full mark in the middle of two spaces and used “awaiting” weirdly.
This happens because they usually copy and paste from emails they have previously sent to other innocents.
Scammers, be professional please.
5. Request to meet in person and see the property
NEVER pay before going into the property. Some scammers will tell you that you can only drive by and see the apartment from the outside. If you have ever tried renting a house out to somebody, you will know this doesn’t make sense at all.
But even if the person did show you around the house, it still doesn’t mean that they are the real owner. There have been cases of scammers stealing keys from the actual landlord or breaking into back windows and taking advantage of when the occupants are out on long vacations.
As crazy as it sounds, one online article shared the story of a tenant getting the key to a property after paying for the rental and security deposit, and then weeks or months later, the actual owner showed up at the door.
6. Identify the actual owner
It might sound like there is nothing you could do to avoid a scammer experienced enough to fool you. But here is the ultimate trick you could do to smash them. Remember the last step I took to determine whether the guy was a scam?
You can access the property deeds for free! They are public legal documents that you can count on. You can go to the website of the corresponding state’s land records to dig them up.
For property documents in Washington state, you can visit the King County Official Records Search (https://recordsearch.kingcounty.gov/LandmarkWeb/Home/Index) and type in the parcel ID of the property (you can also find the parcel ID online with the property address). The list of document results are dated and labeled with names of the grantor and grantee. You can click on it to see an unofficial copy of the document.
Most of the time, they will also mention the relationship status of the grantor and grantee, which could also be a clue for you to match with what the scammer has told you.
By Frances Hui,