Criminals, Creeps and Craigslist

It is a sad commentary on society that when the economy declines, some people turn to criminal activity. This is what seems to have happened with the most recent economic downturn though.

In the last year, we have received more reports of criminal or suspicious behavior than in the previous six years combined of my employment at HAR. Some of the reports are troubling. Some are outrageous. And some are just weird.

Since September is REALTOR® Safety Month, we wanted to give you a rundown of the reports we’ve received from members and remind you that REALTOR® safety should be the number one priority year-round.

One of the most common reports we receive is about REALTORS® having their purses stolen out of their cars when showing a listing or holding an open house. As should always be the case, never leave your purse or anything of value in sight in your car. If possible, you should put anything of value in the trunk of your car or under a covered area before you arrive at your destination. This can be easier said than done. If you have to put your valuables in the trunk when you arrive at a listing or open house, make sure you are aware of your surroundings so that no one is watching you put them in the trunk. However, inside the trunk is obviously much better than in the front seat of your car.

Other members have reported appliances or electronics being stolen from properties they have listed for sale or lease. Having nosy neighbors can be a benefit when they see someone with a moving van taking a refrigerator out of the house. A recent e-mail from a member telling a story about appliances being stolen included neighbors speaking to the man stealing the items. He told the neighbors that he was an appraiser though. I am not sure why an appraiser would need to take the appliances out of the house, but that was his story. If something doesn’t seem right, then it probably isn’t. The copper inside air conditioner units has also continued to be quite popular as the thieves steal the copper coils to sell as scrap.They can sell the tubing for thousands of dollars.

Probably the most common call we receive about scams is related to Craigslist. Now, people can get great deals on Craigslist so we are not slamming the site or the people on it. We do object to criminals taking listings from the Web and posting them on Craigslist as their own. Many times, the properties are actually for sale, but the criminal will post them for lease. They have gone so far as to go and remove the listing agent’s yard signs and will break in a back window and change the locks on the front door so their key will work. They schedule an appointment with the prospect interested in leasing the house (usually for far below market value) and have them fill out a lease application AND submit first and last month’s rent in cash. They hand over the keys to the consumer who starts moving their furniture and belongings into the house. In one case, the listing agent showed up to check on their listing and found someone living in the house. The perpetrator has often times sent an e-mail acting as if they are the homeowner but moved to some foreign country to do missionary work. They come across as very friendly and caring people, when in fact the person writing is looking to bilk the consumer out of their hard-earned cash.

Another scam has cost more than one member thousands of dollars. The prospect will find a multi-million-dollar house listed for sale and contact the listing agent, indicating that they want to view the property. They are always from some foreign country and must fly an entourage to the U.S. to see the house. In some cases, they use names of prominent figures in other countries who can be Googled to see that they are wealthy individuals. Granted, it is not the actual billionaire who is e-mailing you, but rather someone looking to steal money from you. The excitement of possibly selling a $5 million listing sometimes clouds a REALTOR®‘s sense of reality and makes them overlook signs that something might not be right. The scam always involves wiring money to a new bank account that the REALTOR® has opened in their own name so that they can disperse money on behalf of their “client.” The scammer then asks the REALTOR® to wire money out of the account to another bank account in another state for some other expenses. Once the money has been wired to the second bank account, the scammer reverses the wire transfer to the original account, on which you are the account holder, and leaves the REALTOR® on the hook for whatever the amount that was transferred to the out of state bank. It may sound like something you’d never fall for, but several members have and many more have reported receiving similar calls but being too suspicious of the situation.

All of the previous crimes involved money or property being stolen. It becomes much more serious when the people themselves are the target.

We all know that REALTORS® are some of the most visible people in the community. You have print ads in the newspaper displaying your photo. You have a website with your listings and information about yourself. You have yard signs with your cell phone number on them. All of these efforts are to boost your business and help your clients buy or sell their properties. Some people use this information for less professional reasons.

There was a recent report about a man who would call female REALTORS® and ask them to show him some listings. He would also specify the type of shoes that he wanted them to wear. Obviously, this didn’t seem normal, so the REALTORS® would probe a little more before agreeing to meet him in person. They quickly figured out that he seemed to like women’s feet A LOT. Once he realized that they were on to him and that they wouldn’t be meeting him to show them a home, he would become sexually graphic about his interest in feet. And this is just one of the reports. There are more.

Another member reported that a prospect actually threatened her when the “client” couldn’t afford to buy the house he wanted and the REALTOR® wouldn’t help him out financially. When the REALTOR® tried to keep the relationship on a professional basis, the “client” started cursing at her both on the phone and in e-mails and threatening both her and her family. Others have become so enraged that they have sent e-mailed images of their body parts and described what they were going to do to them. It is obviously scary and unsettling, to say the least, to be the target of someone whose mind would work like these people’s seem to, but the REALTORS® have all maintained their professionalism and have reported the incidents to the police.

That leads us to the most important piece of information. Always call the proper authorities when something happens to you or if you just suspect something isn’t right. The police won’t always be able to do anything about it if they can’t find the criminal, but the more reports they receive, the more serious they will take the scam/crime.

Also, if you become the victim of a scam or crime or you receive a suspicious call or e-mail, AFTER you contact the police, e-mail so we can know about it as well. It is only by finding out what people are doing out there that will allow us to alert all our members and hopefully stop anything bad from happening to them as well.

Above all, stay safe!