BLACKSBURG — Adam and Amy Stevens said they were recently shocked to find a familiar four-bedroom rental listed on Craigslist for just $700 a month.
It was the home they’ve lived in since 2009.
Then, they got another surprise: People were actually stopping by their home to inquire about its availability.
Amy Stevens said she first suspected a problem when her neighbor phoned while she was attending one of her son’s soccer games. The neighbor told her a stranger had showed up on their street and was asking questions about the Stevens’ home.
“She said, ‘Amy are you really wanting to rent your house for $700?’ and I was like, ‘What!,’ ” Amy Stevens said.
During the past two weeks the same advertisement has drawn multiple strangers to the couple’s house in the Maple Ridge Village neighborhood, all of them ready to capitalize on the seemingly good deal.
The family, who put their house on the market to sell on March 24, said they have never had intentions to rent it nor did they post it on the popular classified ad-filled website.
The unplanned visitors, some of whom neighbors have witnessed peering into the family’s windows, have caused them much alarm and the response from the website company and local law enforcement has been frustrating.
“At this point nobody seems to really want to do anything and nobody seems to care,” Adam Stevens said.
According to a 2009 FBI Consumer Alert, similar fake Craigslist postings are often a version of a Nigerian scam called a “419 scheme,” named after the Nigerian penal code under which it is prosecuted.
The scam includes criminals searching websites that list homes for sale, copying the information and then posting the house at a greatly discounted rate, along with their own contact information, as a rental on Craigslist.
When interested parties inquire about the rental, the criminal typically tells them he or she had to quickly leave the country because of some type of missionary or contract work and by simply wiring the first and last month’s rent, the rental keys would be mailed. They also often ask the renter to fill out an application with a variety of information that can later be used for identity fraud, according to the report.
The Roanoke Times could not determine if someone has paid money related to the scheme involving the Stevens home.
Richmond-based FBI community outreach specialist Dee Rybiski wrote in an email that Southwest Virginia has not experienced many of these situations and there is typically no financial loss to homeowners.
She wrote that homeowners or renters who think they are being scammed should contact the Internet Crimes Complaint Center, the Federal Trade Commission and local law enforcement.
New River Valley real estate agent Sandy Grant wrote in an email that rent for such a home in Blacksburg would likely average around $1,500 to $1,600 and could cost far more depending on the house and location.
The Stevens contacted Craigslist, which they could only do via email, and received an automated response. They contacted the Blacksburg Police Department and said they were told, “there really wasn’t much they could do,” but would increase neighborhood patrols.
Blacksburg Police spokesman Lt. Mike Albert said he couldn’t speak specifically about the Stevens situation, but such a matter would generally prompt the department to provide such patrols.
Albert said that often in such cases the party responsible for the ad is either out of state or out of the country and Blacksburg police will pass the investigation to another place of jurisdiction.
He suggested homeowners in these situations contact Craigslist and advised that potential renters do their best to verify the information and handle the transaction in person.
Amy Stevens said she realized the people attempting to rent her home were also victims, but was still worried a potential confrontation.
“What if someone comes up with furniture trying to move into my house? What do I do because obviously they’re going to be kind of angry,” she said.
Within days of the first visitor, three more people called in response to the rental ad. And by Wednesday, Amy Stevens said she decide to post the listing on Facebook and ask people to “flag it” in hopes of getting it removed.
“Within 30 minutes they said it had been flagged for removal,” Amy Stevens said.
She said people continued to call and visit the address. One visitor told her he had been informed that the house was empty and he could go in.
Neighbor Tim Hartin intercepted another interested party, which he described as nice, but very disappointed to learn the house was not for rent.
“They seemed bummed out. They said they’d drove from an hour away,” Hartin said.
One caller provided Amy Stevens, who teaches at Blacksburg High School, a phone number and email address for the person behind the fake ad, which she relayed one of her students, senior Josh Sternfeld.
Sternfeld said “counter hacking” was one of his hobbies and after an email exchange he got the scammer to visit his personal website and from that was able to track the scammer’s IP address back to Lagos, Nigeria.
Using the provided phone number and email address, The Roanoke Times requested and was sent the rental application from the scammer.
In the email exchange, the person identifies himself as Keith Friedberg and writes that he has transferred from his “working place” to Houston, Texas. He also claimed the rental rate was so cheap because he was counting on the renter to do routine maintenance and keep the house “tidy.”
Along with a variety of personal information, the document requests, “You picture and You wife picture,” and asks the potential renter to “stick to your words” because Friedberg is “putting everything into Gods hand.”
According to researcher Damon McCoy, the Stevens’ situation is a common one when it comes to Craigslist rental scams.
In March, McCoy, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at New York University, and two other researchers published a study in which they found that Craigslist only catches about half of the rental scams listed on its site.
According to the report, McCoy and his team analyzed more than 2 million Craigslist rental listings during a five month period and detected about 29,000 fraudulent listings in 20 major cities. They compared that number with the number of ads flagged as “suspicious” by Craigslist and found the site only caught 47 percent of the fake ads.
McCoy said during a phone interview this week that the Stevens situation sounded like the typical “cloning scam” which was also detailed in the 2009 FBI report.
He also said the research team had found most of the ads in Lagos and contain a similar story of a homeowner quickly leaving town for some noble cause such as missions work or the military.
According the McCoy’s research, Craigslist flagged the average fake ad shortly after it posted, but 40 percent of the “cloning scam” ads remained active and flagged for 20 hours before being detected.
McCoy said he wasn’t sure of the company’s protocol for detecting fraudulent ads and the company had never responded to his requests for information.
Craigslist also did not respond to an interview request for this story.
He said Craigslist was simply a “very friendly place” for scammers and users flagging items, much like the Stevens did, seemed like the only real way to get fake ads taken down.
“That seems to be the easiest way to get a fraudulent listing removed from Craigslist,” McCoy said.