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Vacation home scams online: If it's too good to be true . . .
None of this is a surprise to Jessica Ader, an agent with CityRealty, an online real estate consulting business in New York.
"We get calls like this at least two to three times a week, usually on the ones that seem just too good to be true, and they are," she said. "We've had people say, 'Oh my God, I just sent my Social Security number!' or, "I just sent a check for $2,000!' And we say, 'Sorry, you're screwed.' " With Ader's help, I did some sleuthing. She pulled up 72 Irving Pl. on her database. "Nothing has been sold or rented here for several years," she said. And penthouse Milton advertised on the sixth floor? "The building has five floors."
Herbert Mouscardy was offering Apartment 1A, a 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom space at 36 W. 35th St., with a gorgeous chandelier, for $150 a night. In his ad, he notes: "This flat is located on the tenth floor. The building has two elevator banks and one of the elevators will drop you in front of the flat."
So I called Greg Darden, president of the building's co-op board. "There is no 10th floor," he said. "This building has seven stories. There's only one creaky elevator. And Apartment 1A is on the first floor." No one named Herbert Mouscardy owns it.
I found a Herbert Mouscardy on Facebook. He said he was an accountant in the Bronx, that he doesn't know anything about the scams, that his wallet was stolen four years ago and the police keep calling asking what he did with all the wire transfers. "I keep telling them, I never got any money."
In the end, after wavering at the Harris Teeter Western Union counter -- going off to buy raspberries, or to try calling Hank from New Jersey or Deron Milton, then coming back, like a moth to a flame, I ended up walking away and not wiring the money. But I attribute that more to the common sense of the guy behind the counter than to any particularly good judgment of my own. "You haven't talked to the person?" the Western Union guy said, shaking his head. "I wouldn't do it."
The next morning, Hank from New Jersey called, urging me not to send my money. Hank, who asked that I not use his last name because he's embarrassed about all this, was traveling in Romania a few years ago. He met some college students and wanted to help them. They said they were trying to get an import-export business going in the States and needed his help picking up wire transfers at the Western Union. Good-hearted Hank was snookered into becoming what the FBI calls a "mule" -- picking up scammers' cash. "I feel like a fool," he said. "I have a PhD. You'd think I'd know better."
About an hour later, Deron Milton himself called, wondering why I hadn't made the money transfer. The caller ID showed the number as 0000012345. In heavily accented English, he asked if I needed any questions answered before wiring the money.
I said I had just one: How could he, knowing that I was a mother with two young children, knowing that I would show up at 72 Irving Pl. and find no apartment and no sixth floor and be out $1,000, "How could you leave me out there on the street with my kids with nowhere to go?"
After I decided to write about my experience, I tried calling and e-mailing Deron Milton again to see what he had to say for himself. The number I had didn't work. I have yet to hear back from him.
Undeterred in my apartment hunt, I went back to Priceline and yes, Craigslist. All of a sudden, it was crystal clear which listings were bogus. The lush photos looked like they were ripped from architectural magazines. The English was off. And the prices were too enticingly low.
I found a legitimate listing that connected to a legitimate Web site, talked to a real live human being and wound up renting a cute one-bedroom with a loft for the kids on the Upper West Side, for a fair price. Charles Isaacs, who runs AtHomeUs.com, had to talk me off the ceiling to convince me that the apartment was real. When he said he took credit card deposits, I breathed easier, but I truly didn't believe it until we had the key in hand.
"With every single e-mail I get, I have to prove myself, prove that I'm not going to scam someone. And I don't always win," Isaacs said. "Craigslist used to be so beautiful. There was so much trust. But now . . . . You really have to be careful."
And that means, sometimes, walking away from the deal that really is too good to be true.