What a steal! These rental ads in Anchorage were too good to be true

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) Looking for a place to rent around Anchorage? On Craigslist, you’ll find there are some real steals.

In Muldoon, for example, a handsome three-bedroom is advertised for just $800 a month. “Home near base and shopping,” the ad says.

In Airport Heights, a cute remodel lists for the bargain price of $645. And in Eagle River, longtime Anchorage resident Claire Bell found a rental listing that appeared to have everything she wanted for $750.

“Two bedroom, two bath. And there was a little yard … close to a lot of good areas like school and church,” Bell said on a recent afternoon.

There’s only one problem. All three of these listings, which were active on Craigslist as of earlier this week, are scams.

In each case, the home is actually for sale, not rent. Someone – likely someone outside of Alaska – hijacked the description and photos of the real estate listings to make fake rental ads online.

It’s an old-school fraud sometimes called a 419 scheme by the FBI, named for a section of the penal code in Nigeria, where many of the ads originate.

“I see it continuously,” said Michelle Tabler, Alaska Regional Manager for the Better Business Bureau.

In Alaska, real estate and rental scams are among the most common internet crimes reported to the FBI, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center. The average victim loses nearly $1,000 according to the center’s latest annual report.

The large number of rentals that are handled over the Internet, combined with the influx of military families and others looking to lock down housing before moving to Alaska, makes the Last Frontier particularly vulnerable, said Eagle River-based real estate agent Raney Hardman.

We looked into the scams after speaking with Bell, who realized that the rental deal she was considering was too good to be true and the listers were a little too eager to hand "their" house over to a stranger.

Bell had wondered why the price was so low, but figured she would ask the owners when she met them. That, of course, never happened.

The people who listed the ad insisted on communicating with her solely by email and text. They used the name of one of the real homeowners, and claimed to be out of state for a church mission in Nigeria.

(We responded to the ad too, simply asking if it was available. We received a reply similar to the one sent to Bell ... A tale of a mission overseas and the need to find a reliable tenant to stay at the house in the meantime.)

Bell even mentioned the possibility of a scam to the lister, only to have the person act offended and claim to be a pastor. Other scams are less sophisticated but share the same goal: Getting applicants to send personal information and/or money.

Tabler, the Better Business Bureau manager, said that homeowners who are out of state and only communicate in writing should be considered a red flag for potential tenants.

Craiglist fails to prevent more than half of rental scam postings and some stay online for as long as 20 hours before they are removed, according to the BBB. One we found in Anchorage had been online for weeks, the listing says.

[Read more BBB tips for spotting and avoiding rental scams here]

In one fake rental ad for a home in Anchorage, the real estate agent trying to sell the house said she sees this scheme often, particularly with vacant homes. The rental was advertised for $800, but a neighbor said houses in the area really rent for closer to $1,700 or $1,800.

We emailed the person who listed that rental too, and immediately received a reply. The emailer said he was a doctor who had nearly lost his legs in an accident and moved from Alaska to Virginia.

There wasn’t much we could say that would deter him from trying to “rent” the home to us – check out the text exchange below. But he stopped emailing when we began asking questions about ownership of the property.

‪Texting with a scam "landlord" who lists fake rentals in Anchorage: ‬

A photo posted by Kyle Hopkins (@kylehopkinsak) on

Craigslists warns users to rent only from people they deal with face-to-face and to never wire money. Following those rules helps avoid 99 percent of scam attempts, the company says. Craigslist did not immediately respond to questions for this story.

Bell, meantime, is still looking for a real rental. While she realized the deal was a fraud before sending money, she is worried because the scammers do have personal information she sent as part of the application process.

“(I’m) very upset and angry, very upset at myself,” she said. “I need to be very, very careful.”

[NOTE: If there is a scam in Alaska that you think Channel 2 should cover, email us at 2investigates@ktuu.com.]

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