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Vacation home scams online: If it's too good to be true . . .


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By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010

It was nearly closing time when I got to the Western Union counter at Harris Teeter. I'd already tried one Western Union closer to my house that was locked up for the night and one at a nearby Giant with a broken machine. I carefully filled out the form to wire nearly $1,000 to a complete stranger.

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I felt uneasy. But Deron Milton was offering a two-bedroom penthouse vacation apartment rental in a prewar building in New York's Gramercy Park overlooking a Zen garden with a swimming pool and fitness center for $150 a night. Part of me just knew it sounded too good to be true. But another part just really, really wanted it to be true.

We'd decided at the last minute to take the kids to New York for spring break, and I'd spent many a bleary-eyed late-night hour searching Priceline and Hotels.com and other sites for affordable places to stay. I wasn't having much luck. So I turned to Craigslist and found Deron Milton's ad and a host of other gorgeous vacation apartment sublets for cheap, cheap, cheap.

Now, I suppose, is when you all want to scream, "Don't be so stupid! Just walk away! Don't do it!"

Oh, there were plenty of signs : Deron Milton answered my initial e-mail almost immediately -- at 3:43 a.m. one night. But instead of seeing a red flag, I merely thought, "These New Yorkers are as crazy as I am, staying up so late." The phone number he gave me was always busy. And he wanted me to wire the payment to some guy named Hank in New Jersey.

Now, I'd heard of Craigslist scams -- the apartments or cars that turn out not to exist. But I'd done my due diligence. I'd looked up 72 Irving Pl. in Emporis.com, a New York real estate Web site, and seen that it was a real building. I'd found this Hank in New Jersey and left him a message.

Standing at the Western Union counter, I hesitated. But true to the lengths some human beings will blindly go to in order to delude themselves when they want something so badly, I pulled out my BlackBerry and sent a note to Deron Milton. "Should I do minute transfer or overnight?"

At this point, it will hardly come as a surprise to you to learn that Deron Milton -- whoever he was, if that was even his real name -- was running a scam. Just a few hours after I left the Western Union counter, he began advertising another New York vacation apartment rental on Craigslist at another address using the same photos I'd been taken in by.

And there were many others. People calling themselves Angela Gomez. James Pascale. Robin William. Joe Collins. Herbert Mouscardy. All offering too-good-to-be-true places at unbelievably low prices. Herbert Mouscardy even sent references. This one, bad English and all, is from someone named Tom Bruce: "Herbert's place really made our trip to New York unique and I would definitely choose to stay here next time visiting and about the Deposit, you shouldn't be worry about that."

Yes, vacation rental seeker, you should "be worry." Or at least be careful. Though there are plenty of legitimate offerings on Craigslist and Vacation Rental by Owner and HomeAway and a host of other sites, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center reports that sham vacation home offers are only the latest in a long list of online fraud operations it tracks.

The center began noticing the scams last year, said Charles Pavelites, the special agent who heads the complaint center. Then they started hearing so many stories of travelers showing up with their luggage to locked doors, nonexistent apartments or surprised families sitting down to dinner who had no intention of renting to vacationing strangers, that they began to gather them on a new Web site: Lookstoogoodtobetrue.com. And the crooks, Pavelites said, are masters of social engineering.

"They've got it figured out -- what will you fall for?" he said. Some put their prices right in line with other, legitimate offerings, he said. Some steal legitimate rental listings or photos off legitimate sites. Or even legitimate brokers' names. Some set up fake companies, create fake e-mail accounts. "Anything that appears to give them more legitimacy."


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