It was a cold January evening when 57-year-old Fran Orientale stood outside the door of a Staten Island apartment that would soon be her new home. She couldn't believe she was really moving out of the place she had lived for the last 15 years, where she had raised her children and made so many happy memories, but her excitement about this new spot—a well-maintained condo in a nice area that she had found through Craigslist—helped soften her wistfulness.
She'd already paid her security deposit and the first month's rent, so the landlord had given her permission to start relocating her things—even though it was over two weeks before her move-in date—so she recruited her daughter and her son-in-law to help lug some boxes.
The trio had made it through the main entrance of the condo complex with Orientale's security key, but at the apartment itself the door wouldn't budge. At first, Orientale assumed it was just a tricky key, the kind you have to jiggle around or fuss with before it gives. But by the time all three had tried the lock without success, she started getting frustrated.
She whipped out her phone to get in touch with the landlord, who she had met in person twice since responding to his Craigslist posting. But all her calls went to voicemail, and text messages seemed to disappear into the void. Confused and annoyed, she and her moving crew had no choice but to head home.
After several days of continually failed correspondence, the horrible reality of the situation crushed down on her: She had been scammed. What had started as a simple Craigslist search had turned into a full-blown nightmare.
Orientale, a waitress, knew of the potential perils of Craigslist when she had first started cruising its apartment listings. She had heard the horror stories (who hasn't?) but she had also successfully purchased things through the site before. Besides, she needed to find a new apartment, something smaller now that one of her three children had moved out, and she wanted to avoid paying a broker's fee. So she figured that it couldn't hurt to give Craigslist a shot, as long as she never went to see any listed apartments alone.
Orientale brought her daughter and son-in-law with her to view one $1,000-a-month condo that had caught her eye. In person, the place was just as nice as the pictures had suggested. The man renting it seemed normal, "upstanding" even, and made her feel comfortable by showing her his drivers license to prove his identity. It was a great place and the cost seemed reasonable, if maybe a little cheap, for the area. After a few days of stewing, Orientale called the landlord back: She would take the apartment.
Instead of meeting back at the condo, the landlord said he could stop by her place to make things official. He came with a lease and traded Orientale her signature and $2,000 for the keys, with a set for the complex, the mailbox, and the apartment itself.
Orientale had no suspicions or concerns until that grim "move-in" morning. But a few days after when she still hadn't heard back from the landlord she called the property management office of the condo complex. That phone call wrought some shocking news: four other people had already called to complain about the exact same situation with the exact same apartment.
"Can you imagine?" she says. "When the 1st came, me and four other families of people would have been ready to move in."
Because Orientale's old landlord had already found new tenants, she was a little over a week away from homelessness, down $2,000, and the victim of a serial scammer.
"Now my head is really going," Orientale says. "I think, 'My god what's happening to me?'"
Unfortunately, Orientale's situation isn't so uncommon. Various Craigslist rental scams have been duping people for years. In one reoccurring storyline, a "landlord" offering a super-cheap apartment will ask a someone to wire over the first and last month's rent before that person has even toured the property. Or a "landlord" will ask that an interested person submit to background check before they can rent the apartment. The scammer gets a referral fee from the background check and the apartment doesn't really exist.
On its site, Craigslist has a whole list of warnings to help people avoid falling for scams:
It's hard to put together any hard data on how many people get swindled on Craigslist rentals per year, but a 2016 study called "Understanding Craigslist Scams" helps shed some light on the scale of the problem: Its researchers detected about 29,000 rental scam listings over the 20 cities that they monitored for 5 months.
Because users post upwards of 80 millions listings per month, it's easy to imagine how scams slip through the cracks.
In Orientale's situation the scammer was much more subtle than in the typical fraud cases that you hear about on Craigslist, since he actually gave her a tour of the apartment, proved his real identity to her, and gave her a set of keys. She followed all of Craigslist's rules.
Although Orientale feels like she did almost everything right, she muses that she should have met the landlord at the new apartment, not hers, when she signed the lease, to make sure the keys worked. More than that, she shouldn't have paid the rent until the first of the month.
In the time since she had discovered the locked apartment, Orientale's life erupted in chaos. She had told her old landlord that she couldn't move out in February—she had nowhere to go and had lost a lot of money—and he took her to court. Even though a judge had granted her several more weeks in her old place, she was overwhelmed with anxiety.
When she ran out of time, she had no choice but to pack all of her belongings into boxes, lug out her furniture, and haul it to an expensive storage locker while she checked herself and her two kids into a motel. She still hadn't found a new place to live.
What really sets Orientale's situation apart is that it actually has a rather bizarre "happy" ending.
Orientale went to the police to report the landlord after discovering the scam, but it ultimately wasn't the cops who got her money back. It was actually the landlord himself.
Several weeks after the incident, he texted Orientale to say that he was sorry and that he had scammed her and the others because he had been desperate for money. He planned on selling the condo and, once he had the cash from the sale, he would pay back what he owed her. He also sent the number of his attorney.
Orientale was stunned. She had no idea why he had been so frenzied for cash (though she suspected drugs) or what had made him decide to fess up. Maybe he grew a conscience, she thought, maybe the cops had contacted him.
She reached out to the man's attorney and when they met up he gave her back the $2,000 that her scammy would-have-been landlord had taken—plus an extra $500 for her suffering. Ultimately, that fee didn't nearly cover the cost of the motel and the storage locker, not to mention the emotional trauma, she says.
But Orientale did eventually find a new apartment. It's nice, but not as cheap as the condo she had thought would be hers. And she still shudders when she thinks back on the whole situation.
"It was horrible. Really, really horrible," she says. "But I hope this story can help someone else to be very wary when using Craigslist."
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