Hansen: Craigslist rental housing scam hits close to home

When we need a roof over our heads, we get desperate.

Con men know this. We know this, yet we still fall for the Craigslist scam.

It's happening every day in the Laguna Beach rental housing market.

People are trying to sell their home, but scam artists take over. They copy the readily available online housing information and post a rental ad instead on Craigslist at a fraction of the price — sometimes not low enough to raise red flags.

"It happens on a daily basis," said Danielle Purcell, owner of Team Laguna. "It's only in the rental market. It's just people all over the world who are scamming money."

Purcell has one full-time staff person devoted to ferreting out the online scams that abuse their listings.

Theresa Wilkes of Huntington Beach was almost a victim late last year. She needed a place fast and saw a rental on Oak Street for $1,300. She found out later the real price was $4,200.

"I was almost a fool to fall for it," she said. "It just sounded a little bit too good to be true. I'm so glad I didn't go down there; next thing you know he was going to want some money from me."

More recently, on Sunday, there was a listing on Craigslist for a five-bedroom house on Pitcairn Place for $3,600.

I emailed the "owner," who provided her Yahoo email address. I got a reply three hours later.

"Hello cavalry greeting to you," the letter started. It was a long, poorly written letter that included a rental application form.

The woman quickly descended into random, disturbing details, explaining that she was in New York on a mission.

"Actually i lost one of my daughter to Hiv/Aids last year and ever since then, i have been into charity work trying all my possible best to help those that are victims and eradicate Hiv/Aids as a life-threatening disease," she wrote.

She went on at some length about AIDS, then finally talked about a $1,000 deposit and filling out the form.

So we should know better by now, right? These types of scams are common, and when things seem too good to be true, they usually are.

But when the fiction hits close to home, it's more than just an anonymous online scam.

The fake owner claimed to have lost a daughter to AIDS. The real owners on Pitcairn Place lost their son in a tragedy Aug. 15.

Bryce Halbert, 43, grew up in Laguna Beach and was the father of four young children. He died unexpectedly after complications from emergency surgery while vacationing in Mexico with his wife and children. His family is devastated by the loss and is struggling to make sense of what happened.

"How sad," Purcell said. "Those are good people who just lost their son. They don't need that, I'll tell you that much."

Somewhere in Nigeria or South Africa or even the U.S., someone is sitting behind a computer screen sending off form letters. They have no clue. Perhaps they just follow orders and get pennies on the dollar for each returned email.

Purcell, whose father, Neil Purcell, was the longtime police chief in Laguna Beach, tries hard to report all of the fake listings, but it's an uphill battle.

"I'd do anything I could to never, ever have another Craigslist ad again," she said. "It's just a mess."

It's a mess with no winners.

Potential renters get excited, then disappointed — or worse.

Homeowners have to hassle with the distractions. Realtors waste time and money on bogus listings. Everyone is left feeling cheated.

Except for that mysterious Nigerian prince, who is laughing all the way to the bank.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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