Prospective renters using Craigslist to find temporary housing in Charlottesville have recently been the victims of scammers, paying thousands of dollars in rent up front before showing up on the doorstep of bewildered homeowners who already rented out their space.
Janice Kavanagh is a Charlottesville real estate agent who rents out the front half of her house, as well as her mother’s cottage next door, through Airbnb. But over the past year, scammers have grabbed photos of her property from Airbnb and posted them on Craigslist, advertising her property as available for rent. Since the start of June, she’s had five different people pull up to check out the house, some expecting to move in that day.
“I feel like I [can only] bang my head against the wall because no one really cares,” Kavanagh says. “Craigslist is too big to care, and the police have probably bigger fish to fry. And quite honestly, I am not a victim of anything, but the people are who are…trying to rent out my properties.”
When these scammers are contacted about a listing, they send the interested renter a photo of a driver’s license in order to “prove” their identity. They tell the victim they can’t go inside the house because other renters are currently staying there, then negotiate a monthly rate and ask for a certain amount to be paid up front by depositing it directly into a bank account.
As a real estate agent, Kavanagh has seen homes she’s listed for sale pop up on Craigslist as available for rent for years. Those houses always had “For Sale” signs out front, so interested renters who stopped by would call her asking whether or not the property was actually available to renters. While she was able to help those people avoid being scammed, Kavanagh has no idea how many victims never called.
Kavanagh has posted a warning on Craigslist with pictures of her cottage to inform prospective renters. But it’s not just her home that’s been exploited. One of her friends who also rents out her home had an older couple show up at her door who needed to stay in Charlottesville until December for chemotherapy treatments at the UVA Medical Center. They’d already paid several thousand dollars for the three months’ rent.
In an email to a woman from Virginia Beach who tried to rent Kavanagh’s property, one scammer impersonating a property manager at Perfect Home Letting—which doesn’t exist—wrote, “You’re getting things wrong. You can walk through or drive by the apartment to see the neighborhood and surroundings. There was an agreement between me and the current tenants that there won’t be any form of disturbance while they are in the apartment. This is legitimate. Not one of those scams on craigslist. Attached is a copy of my drivers license.”
The scammer also grew frustrated at the woman’s request to speak on the phone about the cottage. Sensing something was off about the property manager, she decided to stop by the property anyway. It was there she met Kavanagh, who has since gone to the Charlottesville Police Department to report the series of incidents.
“CPD has been made aware of this incident and it is under investigation,” Public Information Officer Tyler Hawn wrote in a statement. “CPD recommends Craigslist customers review advertisements thoroughly and take steps to contact the advertiser and verify the name of the company to ensure the listing is real.”