It’s no surprise that the terms “scam”, “Nigeria” and “CraigsList” are associated together – but what’s the real estate connection?  Read on… this is very disturbing:

It is a fact of the Internet age. When the word “Nigeria” comes up in any proposition involving money, hit “delete” and run screaming from your computer. An item from WJAR-TV in Providence, RI, provides yet another cautionary tale, this one involving Craigslist, the popular classified ad site that has been taking a beating for being the hangout of the homicidal and merely disreputable. (“Need a hitman?” “Need a ‘massage’?” “Need both?”)

Adding to Craigslist’s PR woes is a scam artist who hijacked a legitimate listing for a rental house in Portsmouth. “Charles Burger” reposted the property ad’s information under his alias at a rock-bottom rent. He instructed interested parties to wire first month and security deposit to Lagos, Nigeria.

Sue Johnson and her husband, the real property owners, were surprised to see “tenants” walk up to the front door lugging boxes, ready to move in. No doubt these people indignantly told the Johnsons, “Don’t look surprised. We sent our money to Nigeria!”

This is crazy and disturbing on many levels.  But here are a few tips that come to mind for those of you who may be looking to rent property for your own use:

  • Never rent property sight unseen.  The scam artist undoubtedly told ad respondents, “OK, you can drive by the house, but don’t bother the tenants.” Real smooth.
  • Always conduct a thorough walkthrough of a rental property. Make a list of any damage or defects. This protects the tenant and the landlord and gets the relationship off to a good start. Not stepping inside a property prevents this important inspection (see above.)
  • Always use a well-drafted rental agreement. If you’re not working with a real estate agent, boilerplate forms are available from a number of sources. Tenant and landlord expectations need to be set upfront, especially on important issues such as who pays for appliance repairs, utilities, and upkeep like gardeners. Some of these costs may be split. Everything should be negotiated, understood and agreed upon before signing.
  • Don’t think the drop in home prices has created too-good-to-be-true rents. In many markets where sales are slumping, rentals are going strong due to people needing a place to live after having to sell or leave their homes. A quick scan of rental listings will tell you the price range for the type of property you’re seeking.

So repeat after me:  There is no prince from Nigeria who needs my bank account number to transfer $10 million. There is no landlord from Nigeria who has a cute three-bedroom for rent at 60% off.

If you’re a landlord, you could be subjected to this type of scam.  So it’s a good idea to make it very easy for prospective tenants to reach you:

  • Be sure that your contact information is posted on the property in very conspicous places.
  • Consider showing your properties by appointment only
  • On your “For Rent” sign, consider indicating that a physical application will be necessary

None of these things can prevent a scammer from using your property as a conduit for ill-gotten gain.  But these tips may help less-savvy tenants to understand what is expected of them a little more clearly and thus save you some confusion and distraction.

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