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Family duped in Nigerian rental scam
By Gene Park
( Monday, February 23, 2009 )
Kailua, Honolulu County, Hawaii: Elene Tzetzos returned to her Noke Street townhouse after being out of state to find the locks changed, boxes on her patio and a strange family almost completely moved in.
Early this month, Tzetzos and the family fell victim to scam artists who said they were from Nigeria. The con artists persuade prospective renters to send money overseas to rent homes that belong to someone else.
Because the suspects are in Nigeria and out of Honolulu's jurisdiction, the Police Department can do nothing but warn residents of the scams, said Lt. Eric Brown of the Kailua police district.
It started earlier this month when Tzetzos posted on a military housing Web site that she was going to rent out her townhouse unit on Noke Street in Kailua.
Apparently the scam artists obtained the information, set up a fake e-mail address and posted it as a vacation rental advertisement on classifieds Web site Craigslist.org. The home was falsely listed as having a much lower monthly rent than the almost $2,000 Tzetzos charges, and that it was going to be for three months.
The family, who did not want to be interviewed, contacted the scam artists, who then sent them photos of the townhouse's keys and of the unit itself -- apparently from Tzetzos' ad, police said.
The family was told that the keys had gotten lost in the mail, so the scam artists, posing as the homeowner, told the renters to go ahead and change the locks. The family had the false rent papers, showed them to the locksmiths, and the locks were changed.
Tzetzos returned home Saturday to find that the locks had been changed, and the family was already moving in.
"They were going to rent, and they were assuming it was a steal," she said. "If it sounds like a steal, it probably is a steal."
The family had already sent the money to Nigeria and was out about $2,500 as a result. They have since moved out, and Tzetzos plans to rent the unit to a military family next week.
Tzetzos said the scam ad stated they were looking for a tenant with the "fear of God." Tzetzos said that should have been a red flag, because landlords cannot discriminate against things like race or religion.
"No landlord can tell a tenant you have to have the fear of God," she said.
Last year, the Honolulu Police Department had less than a dozen reports about the rental scam. HPD's Brown said this was the first case where a scam victim actually moved onto the property.
"Normally for the rental scams, the property doesn't even exist," Brown said. "Sometimes it'll be a beachfront property. There'd be a beach but no property."
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