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Real estate scam hits area, nation

Scammers prey on potential renters by pirating legitimate realty listings:
Realtors and prospective renters beware. A new scam has come to Jonesborough – one which may have international roots.
Jonesborough Realtor Jack Van Zandt, of Century 21 Home Team, began to suspect a fraud after receiving three phone calls from people who asked about renting a home he had listed for sale.
“After talking to them, I figured out someone had taken the pictures from my listing online and used them to advertise the home as being for rent,” Van Zandt said. “The ad claimed someone who was in Africa owned the house and needed to rent it cheap. It was only $425 including utilities and when you sent the deposit, they would let you see it.”
One of Van Zandt’s callers was East Tennessee State University student Thomas Johnson. He had seen pictures of the home on the online classifieds website and sent an email inquiring about the property.
“They wrote me back,” Johnson said. “They said they were born again (Christians) who were missionaries getting ready to go to South Africa and they owned a house here that they wanted to rent.”
Johnson responded and asked several questions. “They got back to me, but with bogus answers,” he said. “They wanted a lot of my personal information, but I didn’t send it. I wrote back and asked them for a phone number, some more info about them and about their local church. All I got back from that email was ‘please send us money.’ They wanted a moneygram.”
Suspicious, Johnson went online and punched the house’s address into a search engine. “That’s when I found Jack’s name and learned the house was listed for sale. When I called him, he told me he had nothing to do with it and that it was a scam,” Johnson said. “I hope more people understand, that when there’s a listing on craigslist, they should do an investigation on the houses and cars they have listed because we all know there are people out there who want to rip you off.”
Van Zandt underscored Johnson’s comments and urged anyone looking for rental property on the Internet to beware.
Any listing that asks for money up front, provides no phone number, lists just an email address and offers no local contact information should send up red flags, Van Zandt said.
Johnson’s call spurred Van Zandt to share his information with other realtors in his company during a staff meeting. He was surprised to learn that three other agents had similar experiences.
Apparently the scam isn’t just limited to Jonesborough. Michelle Munchenburg, of Johnson City, saw a Bristol home listed for rent on craigslist and, like Johnson, sent an email asking for more information.
“When he wrote back, it sounded very weird,” Munchenburg said. “It didn’t make a lot of sense. It was written in very poor English and it said something about the owner doing volunteer work in Africa. They sent me a questionnaire to fill out.”
The form asked for personal information, leading Munchenburg to believe the so-called “homeowner” might be working some type of identity-theft scheme. The emails show someone identifying himself as “Nikolas A. Shepherd” claiming to be the owner of the house located on Jaybird Court in Bristol.
In the email, he says that he has been transferred to West Africa Nigeria to do volunteer work with “Volunteer for International Partnership” for the next four years.
According to the organization’s website, “Shepherd” has nothing to do with VIP. A large yellow box on their homepage reads: “Fraud Alert. Be advised that there is an individual misrepresenting himself as a participant in a VIP program who is trying to sell/rent property to unsuspecting individuals. This is not a legitimate offer and this person is not in any way associated with VIP.”
That warning doesn’t seem to be enough to dissociate the 80-year-old Vermont-based agency from the scammer, said Ilene Todd, VIP director.
“This has been going on for months and months. I have had calls from all over the country, from many different states and cities,” she said. “We’ve contacted craigslist and we’ve contacted the local police, but what can they do?”
The scammers work hard to get people’s trust, even offering an explanation if prospective renters discover a “For Sale” sign in the home’s yard.
Munchenburg’s email addressed that very issue. “I want you to know that we intend selling the house before and there is a for sale sign board in front of the house,” the scammer writes. “We changed our mind due to the bad economy and increase by the agent. We asked the agent in charge of selling the house to stop.”
That’s not true, says Michael Cowan, of Century 21 Legacy of Colonial Heights, who has the Bristol home listed. Cowan had received phone calls making him aware of the scam and he isn’t the least bit happy.
“I contacted the owners to tell them as soon as I got wind of it,” Cowan said. “They had their home listed for rent previously on craigslist before listing it for sale with me. I guess that is how these people found it.”
The story Cowan heard from his callers was almost identical to the ones Johnson and Munchenburg were told.
“The email they got was from someone who said they owned the house and they had the key with them, but they were somewhere out of the country doing ministry work or missionary work. If you would just send them a retainer, they’d send you the key,” Cowan said. “It’s not right and it’s not fair to the people who own the property. I don’t know how they’re doing it, but they’re scamming people.”
Neither Johnson nor Munchenburg took the bait, but Van Zandt is concerned others out there won’t be so lucky – those who may have been tricked into sending a deposit.
“I worry that the scammers are hurting the people who can be hurt the most – the ones who can barely make it and are trying to find an inexpensive place to live. If someone has sent in a deposit, it’s almost a sure thing they’ll never see that money again,” Van Zandt said. “Those are the people who can get sucked into a scam the easiest, because they are usually in the most desperate situations.”
The scam has apparently been around for quite a while. In a 2012 post, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website warned of a similar scam involving real estate posted via classified ad websites. The warning notes the scammers often use the legitimate realtor’s name to create a fake e-mail, which gives the fraud more legitimacy.
Jonesborough Police Chief Matt Hawkins said he wasn’t aware of the local attempts related to the real estate fraud, but he is all too familiar with past scams involving craigslist and crime that has international connections.
“Craigslist is a real fishing ground and, of course, it almost always involves items for sale,” he said. “Usually it is a money-laundering scheme. A lot of that is done overseas and is very, very difficult to investigate.”