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Online scams targeting renters, landlords

FARGO -- When Moorhead apartment manager Casey Thiessen started to look for a different home in the metro area, she went to the popular website.

The free classified ad site shows hundreds of apartments, houses and townhomes for rent in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

Unfortunately, not all of those are legit.

Thiessen -- who was searching for more space in a townhome -- inquired about ads she thought looked reasonable, but the replies she got often were a sign of trouble.

The replies were similar: a detailed story in poor grammar from a would-be landlord that explains an absence from town or a shower of perks the property can offer. Sometimes, the reply only began with a story. Sometimes, it immediately asked for personal information such as a credit score, which was the case for Thiessen.

"I knew right away I wasn't going to put any personal information on it," she said. "They made the deals look so good, and you get that reply, and it's just completely bogus."

If scammers are able to collect personal information, they can move forward with identity theft and related crimes.

Luckily for Thiessen, she didn't turn over any information. But trying to find a home in an abyss of fake ads is frustrating, she said.

"It's hard to find a place," she said.

Hopeful renters aren't the only ones being targeted.

Colene Hill rents out two of the three bedrooms in her Detroit Lakes, Minn., home.

She currently receives 10 to 15 sketchy replies per day after posting her most current ad on Craigslist.

In one case, she received 23 canned responses in 24 hours.

"It's just shocking," Hill said. "Most of them follow the same kind of storyline. I believe if I were to answer these strange emails, they would want more information. I just don't understand what the reasoning is behind this."

Fargo Police Lt. Joel Vettel said the online rental scams are reported frequently. Most are often run by suspects out of state.

"They typically are not from our community. They are either from across the country or farther," Vettel said.

While the department receives complaints of suspected scams often, arrests are not as common.

"We typically don't see a lot of arrests in these. The paper trail is so extensive. Unless those people are local, it's hard to trace, but we do give information on major scams to the FBI," Vettel said.

In Moorhead, Minn., Police Lt. Tory Jacobson said the scams seem to be more popular across the river.

"I'm aware of them; fortunately, it hasn't been a problem for us in Moorhead," Jacobson said. "It could hit us just as easily as anywhere else with the Internet."

Realtors are also aware of the online scams, and many see legitimate sale listings used in rental scams.

"It continues to be out there, and everybody should be cautious about it," said Todd Anhorn, Advantage Realtor and president of the Fargo Moorhead Area Association of Realtors.

However, online advertising is a must in the real estate business.

"If you're not online, you're not out there. That's where everybody goes to nowadays," Anhorn said.

Vettel said it's important to simply try to educate the public on how to spot possible scams.

Leasers asking for a wire transfer should be regarded as suspicious. Vettel suggests never wiring money.

"There is very little we can do for the public to get their money back."

High-end homes advertised for extremely low prices are also often "too good to be true," Vettel said.

For those who have a home for sale or have spotted their own house listing on fraudulent sites, Anhorn said homeowners should not answer the door to any possible strangers and be weary of visitors not accompanied by a realtor.