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Con artist scams hopeful renters on Lopez Island

The rental house would be perfect for their family.

Orcas Islanders Erin and Randy Davis took the ferry to Lopez, found 379 Williams Lane, took a good look around from outside, and liked what they saw: a three bedroom, two bath on five acres with a two-car garage in a nice, quiet neighborhood.

Randy had been offered a transfer by his employer, San Juan Propane, if they could find a place to live on Lopez. With their current lease ending in August, the Davises were searching for options for housing in the islands.

Erin spoke to the man advertising the rental at length via texts and emails and he explained that he was out of state for work, but wanted first month’s rent and a deposit before he mailed them the keys. Erin signed the rental agreement and sent him the money using a wire transfer with a nationwide bank.

The problem was, the man didn’t send them the house keys; instead, he asked for more money, saying other people wanted the house and if the Davises paid more, they could have it.

“It was real, until it wasn’t,” said Erin. “And then I panicked, and I went, something’s wrong, people don’t do that.”

She found the supposed homeowner’s name on Facebook and messaged his wife, only to find he was not the man she’d been talking to, and was completely unaware of the rental deal.

The Craigslist ad had been posted by a scammer who had stolen all the information, including the homeowner’s name and photos of the house, which was on the market.

The only legitimate information connected to the scammer was his cell phone number and his email address.

Erin immediately contacted the bank, which the Davises prefer not to name, but two days had passed since the transfer and staff said the money was not retrievable. The bank referred the incident to their fraud department, but Erin is not hopeful at this point.

The Davises are sharing their story in hopes that other islanders won’t be taken in by this type of scam.

“I’m a pretty trusting person,” said Erin, who grew up on the island and has deep local family roots. That said, this scammer had covered his bases well.

For every situation or request that raised a little bit of a flag, she said, he had a detailed, well-prepared answer that made sense. He was out of state for work, and would be back on Lopez to meet them personally in October. He’d had bad experiences with renters in the past, so he wanted to find new renters personally. It was his lawyer who was advising him to get the money up front, before handing over the keys. He didn’t want a check because he had been paid in the past with checks that came up “insufficient funds.” The Davises weren’t alarmed by the “for sale” signs posted on the property, because the scammer told them the house had recently been on the market, but he wasn’t trying to sell it anymore. The detailed answers went on and on, and the rental house was also cross-posted on a rent-to-own website Erin came across. What should have triggered more of a flag for her, said Erin, was when the man asked her to send the wire transfer from Walmart.

“He said he had kids who grew up on Lopez, but he’s asking me to send something from Walmart – and I’m thinking, ‘You would know that if you had lived here’,” said Erin. But under the pressure of needing a new home by Sept. 1, she said, she didn’t dig as deep as she could have. “He used that urgency – I know you really want it – he used that against us,” she said.

In hindsight, Erin encourages islanders to take extra caution in making rental arrangements, as the islands’ tight housing market, with a large percentage of absentee owners, makes our community more prone to this type of scam.

“There are a lot of vulnerable people here; they are giving the last of what they have to find a house,” said Erin, “and I would hate to see that happen [to someone else].” She urges would-be renters to do their own background check, finding local community references who can vouch for the person – especially if the landlord is out of state. Beware of information that can be easily stolen by scammers, like the true owner’s name, easily available on the county assessor’s website, she said.