An Internet scam in which homeowners' identities are used to trick would-be renters into transferring money via Western Union has made its way to the Kenai Peninsula.
"It's really bad," said Glenda Feeken, an area realtor with Re/Max. "People living here have sent money off, expecting to move into these houses."
The scammer claims he or she is a missionary residing in West Africa and plans to remain abroad for a few years. Offering rent for a cheap price, many people fall victim to the crooked deals.
Homeowners are also caught in the scam. Kenai resident Alan Poynor received a call from Feeken, his realtor, who informed him that a person had called about photos of Poynor's home on Craigslist.
"I checked Craigslist, and lo and behold there was my house for rent," he said.
Photos of homes are retrieved from online listing services, lists of homes for sale many realtors use to conduct business. The scammers express displeasure with their supposed realtors and, as a result, are choosing to handle rent themselves. They set up email accounts in the owners' names and attempt to close deals with unsuspecting renters.
The scammers set up a fake email account with Poynor's name.
People applying to rent the homes receive an almost immediate response. The scammers ask for $1,400, which covers a month of rent and a security deposit.
If a person reaches the point of transferring money to the scammers, they lose more than cash.
"One thing that really scares me is when people fill out these applications they're giving out their Social Security numbers," Feeken said. "So, (the scammers) can commit fraud in other ways."
Email correspondence between renter and scammer carries an eager tone. The scammer encourages potential victims to drive by the house, giving excuses as to why there's furniture within the home or a for-sale sign sitting in front of the residence.
The elaborate excuses continue if a renter's suspicion is raised. Cynthia Galic's home and name were used in an attempt to scam a Montana couple looking to relocate to the Peninsula.
When concerns were raised, the scammers claimed it was better to work without a realtor, claimed all their friends were in West Africa on missionary work to avoid personal reference, and claimed lying was against their religion.
"I'm telling you the truth now as a dedicated Christian (it) is against my doctrine to rip people off (for) there (sic) money which they labored so hard for," an email reads.
The renter is also advised numerous times to deposit payment as quickly as possible.
Poynor said he believes the scam is effective. He's had people show up at his house wondering why it's occupied.
"I had one couple show up Sunday," he said. "I just told them it was a scam and explained the whole thing. They said they expected as much, which is why they drove by the house."
He said he's more frustrated with the apparent lack of aid regarding Internet scams. Craigslist hasn't removed the post displaying Poynor's home. The post was marked as spam twice, and he has filled out an online contact form explaining the dilemma to no avail.
The email account using Poynor's name was removed from Yahoo at his request.
Victims of deceptive business practices can file a consumer complaint with the Alaska Department of Law's Consumer Protection Unit, which files legal actions on behalf of the state to stop such practices.
The protection unit also educates the public about consumer issues. Identity theft, product recalls and scams are researchable topics on its website at http://www.law.state.ak.us/consumer.
Consumer disputes are resolved by notifying businesses of complaints and engaging in informal mediation. However, the unit admits it does not investigate every complaint.
"Because we cannot investigate every complaint, we focus our investigative and enforcement activity on complaints that reflect a pattern or practice of unfairness or deception substantially affecting the public interest," says the Consumer Protection Unit's website.
Davyn Williams, Consumer Protection Unit attorney, encourages victims of Internet crimes to report complaints to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center.
"A lot of these crimes are international," she said. "If you see anything involving the wiring of money it's highly likely it's a scam. Once the money's wired it's gone."
People can visit rentalscams.org, she said. The site describes variations of frauds involving rent money.
Alaska State Troopers also have a Computer and Financial Crimes Unit. Troopers only have jurisdiction if the scam violates state statute and if the person committing the illegal scam is operating inside of Alaska and inside Troopers' jurisdiction, said Megan Peters, spokesperson, in an email.
IC3 received a total of 4,024 complaints from Alaska in 2010.
Advanced fee fraud, like requesting rent money up front, totals 3.2 percent of the state's complaints. Credit card fraud totals 18.3 percent of the complaints, according to IC3.
Feeken said she's seen similar fraud in the past, but the scammers are currently targeting the Peninsula with force.
"I'm shocked that people are answering these posts, and it worries me they're giving information out and sending money," she said. "They're harmed in multiple ways."
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at email@example.com.