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Zero Immunity

Rental scams run rampant at Lake Tahoe
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• Avoid wiring money to unknown individuals, especially through Western Union or Moneygram.

• Always meet the owner or property manager onsite. Avoid anyone with a sob story saying they are out of state or out of the country.

• Do not pay credit report sites until first verifying the website and meeting with the property owner in person.

“I’ve spent my life defending the Net, and I do feel that if we don’t fight online crime, we are running a risk of losing it all. We have to do this globally, and we have to do it right now,” said cyber security expert, Mikko Hyppönen, in his 2011 TED Talk focused on the rise in crime on the internet. 

Five years later, in the midst of the worst housing crisis Truckee/North Lake Tahoe has ever seen, our area has been hit with over a dozen successful rental scams since the beginning of 2015, costing victims anywhere between $500 and $8,000. To date, Washoe and Placer county sheriff’s offices and the Town of Truckee Police have made zero arrests due to a lack of suspect information and the probability that most scammers are not even from Truckee/Tahoe, let alone the United States.

“I’ll usually see six to 12 calls on rental scams during high seasons, likely due to the higher volume of people seeking rentals,” said Sgt. Dave Hunt of the Placer County Sheriff’s Office. 

These few cases however, represent only a small part of the story. For every scam that is successfully executed and reported, the FBI estimates that up to 10 times as many go unreported, whether successful or not.

Take Tahoe City local Jamie Walker, who back in April nearly sent a deposit of $2,000 to a scammer going by the name Alfred Pepke. After coming across a beautiful home for rent in West Shore on Craigslist, Walker was prompted to go check the house (exterior only), and if interested, was to fill out an application and wire a $2,000 deposit to Pepke who claimed to be visiting his sick wife in Chicago.

“In retrospect, everything looked very fishy, but when you’re actually texting with someone and really want to find a rental, it was easy to get as far as I did. Thankfully my mom was able to see right through the scam.” 

The house in question had been sold, and according to Wendy Poore of West Lake Properties, Walker was one of four individuals who called to question the listing’s legitimacy after communicating with Pepke. “The scammer pulled the listing information and photos directly off of our website, and even added a couple of interior photos that weren’t even of the house,” Poore said. The fact that Walker had been texting with the scammer is very normal. According to Hunt, “Most scammers will invest in a burner phone, and once they pull off one or more scams they ditch it to cover their trail.”

Rental scams typically go one of three ways:

• The first is when a fake post on a listing site instructs a potential renter to visit a credit report site. The victim stands to lose a small fee, or in the worst cases, all of the information making up their personal identity.

• The second is similar to Walker’s story in which a fake post directs the applicant to wire deposit money, usually in the hundreds of dollars.

• The third is when targets are asked to pay a fee to a  company to access listings of pre-foreclosure rentals, or rent-to-own properties.

The website of choice for most scammers is Craigslist, due to what many experts believe is the result of poor action being taken by the company on suspicious posts. In the first-ever systematic study of online rental scams, New York University Tandon School of Engineering discovered that of two million rental listings, spread among 20 major city locations on Craigslist, 29,000 were fake. Within the same study, researchers determined that, of the fake postings identified, only 47 percent of the ads were flagged as “suspicious” by Craiglist.

This trend has by no means avoided the Tahoe Basin.“During a three-day period around mid-July, my wife and I noticed that practically every Craigslist ad within the region was connected to scams directing users to obtain a credit score report,” said Sean McAlindin, a Tahoe resident who is unofficially studying the trend. “Upon Googling some of these websites, hundreds of results showed they were being used to trick people into paying a service fee.”

McAlindin was one of the fortunate individuals who detected idiosyncrasies within the postings, but not everyone has been as lucky as he was. Vacationers and seasonal employees working under the J-1 Visa Exchange Program are constantly looking to secure housing prior to arriving in Lake Tahoe, and often times the only way to do this is by wiring a deposit fee without having a reputable website to act as a secure middleman in the transaction. 

In November 2015, a group of J1’s who had been recruited by a local ski resort to work the 2015/16 winter season attempted to secure a home in Tahoe Donner by sending a deposit of $8,000 to accommodate 11 individuals. Upon arriving and immediately going to the listed address, they were deeply panicked by discovering the house was not for rent and was already occupied by long-term tenants.

Fortunately for the group of J-1s, the employer was able to mitigate the situation by securing discounted hotel rooms while they found a new living situation. “Losing your deposit is only half the blow,” Hunt said. “Once a family arrives in the area, not only are they down $1,000 or more, they also have lost the guarantee they’ll have a place to stay during their vacation.” 

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December 13, 2018