James Sims said he was an actor. Or he owned a clothing store. He seemed like somebody.For Richard Rogers, a budding filmmaker from the Los Angeles area, Mr. Sims was also a welcome relief.
Mr. Rogers was 24 years old and had just three days to find an affordable apartment when he spotted the perfect place on Craigslist in August 2017. It was perhaps strange that the building wasn’t really in North Hollywood, Calif., as Mr. Sims had advertised, but in tourist-trap Hollywood proper instead. But for just $900 a month—a steal—the two-bedroom luxury apartment would be his for the next few months. Just like Mr. Rogers, Mr. Sims was tight on time. He sent Mr. Rogers a photo of a pregnant woman in a hospital bed. His girlfriend was just about to give birth, Mr. Sims said, and together they would soon need to move into a different apartment. Maybe sending the maternity ward photo to a stranger was eccentric, but Mr. Sims was just so easy to deal with, Mr. Rogers said. “The dude was a good actor. He was so calm. He was so understanding.”
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The young filmmaker would soon realize he was the victim in a Hollywood heist scene beyond his creative control. There was no pregnant girlfriend in the hospital, but a different girlfriend, away on vacation, and a boyfriend with the keys to her apartment, intent on duping someone into thinking they could just move right in. It was unclear whether anyone named James Sims was involved. The James Sims Facebook page Mr. Rogers had checked out was deleted soon after. Similar scenarios are playing out in cities and college towns across the country. For most young people, rent is a huge expense; wasting a month’s worth, or two, on a scam can have catastrophic financial consequences. Those with little financial wherewithal and dependent on finding a decent deal—often in a hurry as life situations shift—are extra vulnerable. Rental scams aren’t new, but as more platforms and services to find an apartment have spread online in recent years, so have the available avenues for crime. Renters on a deadline, combing webpages for a place in their price range, are being enticed with listing photos and back stories that seem legitimate, but ultimately end in grift. Money quickly changes hands, but the deal itself evaporates. Hollywood cop
who in an interview modestly described himself as a “bottom-of- the-mill” burglary detective, said he sees 10 new sublet complaints in his district each month. Unlike police in some other cities (the Austin, Texas, police department said its officers “do not investigate rental scams that begin on free internet advertisement websites”), Detective Aluotto is chasing down his leads.
University of Michigan senior Mackenzie Hans, 21, at her new apartment. She was the victim of a sublet scam while searching for housing for a Boston internship this summer.
Erin Kirkland for The Wall Street Journal
Last month, Detective Aluotto made an arrest after a scammer agreed to meet in person to collect his cash. “They’re preying on the low supply and high demand of housing in Los Angeles,” the detective said of the rent swindlers. The Federal Trade Commission has received more than 1,600 complaints about sublet scammers from all over the country since 2013, according to data obtained by The Wall Street Journal. In American college towns, where many students are on the lookout for short stays or a way out of a longer lease at the end of a school year, sublet schemes seem to be on the rise. “I’ve been at my job for 10 years and it’s been more common in the last couple years that I’ve seen these subletting scams” said
staff real-estate attorney for students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In April, Mackenzie Hans, now a senior at Michigan, needed to arrange a sublet in Boston ahead of her second summer as a paid intern at Gillette. She found a place online that looked pretty good: $850 for a bedroom in Cambridge, Mass., the home of Harvard and MIT and her area of choice. The sublessor, one Marisela Slawson, said she was out of town and wouldn’t be able to show the apartment in person. That was fine by Ms. Hans because she wasn’t able to make a special trip out to Cambridge before summer started anyway. Ms. Slawson then asked Ms. Hans to wire her the $850 security deposit, which she did, but then later insisted the first month’s rent had to be paid in bitcoin cryptocurrency.
If I had lost that money, I would have had to move back home.
Suspicious, Ms. Hans eventually asked Ms. Rosen to take a look. Ms. Rosen did a little digging and called the building manager. There was no Marisela Slawson living at the apartment in question. Ms. Hans filed a police report, but to no avail. “Basically the response I got from the detective was: ‘You know it’s really hard to track these things…don’t expect anything,’” Ms. Hans said. For Detective Aluotto as well, many cases are too complicated to solve on his own, especially ones involving players outside Los Angeles. “When you start talking about wiring money across state lines, it’s way beyond my job,” he said. He refers such cases to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI declined to make anyone available for an interview on the subject of sublet scams. The bureau’s website, however, does offer some sharp advice on how to avoid becoming a victim: Deal only with landlords and sublessors that you know are local. A deal that seems too good to be true probably is. Treat a request to wire money with suspicion. Ms. Rosen said wire transfers should be treated like cash: Once you give the money away there’s no way to cancel the transaction. A legitimate sublessor or landlord should be willing to accept an alternate and safer form of payment, she said, such as a personal check. “A landlord’s request for payment by wire transfer is a big red flag,” she said. For renters picking out a place remotely, she said potential tenants should insist on a virtual tour of the apartment to make sure it exists—and that the sublessor has access to it. Ms. Rosen and Ms. Hans also recommend doing as much research as you can on the property and the sublessor, to make sure they have the right to offer the property in the first place. Many cities have websites where you can look up properties and see who owns them, Ms Rosen said. You can then contact the owner to make sure the sublet is real. Back in Hollywood, Mr. Rogers was savvy enough to cancel the money orders for his sublease before it was too late. With his rent money gone, his life as an independent adult might have come to an abrupt halt. “If I had lost that money, I would have had to move back home,” he said. Write to Will Parker at email@example.com
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