California construction company owner Scott Locker was looking forward to visiting friends in Key West this month after he thought he found a great rental property through the online classified site craigslist.
Instead of a vacation, he got a lesson in fraud, and Key West police say more people like him are finding out the hard way about fake rental properties advertised on the Internet.
Locker initially lost $1,000 in the scam, but was refunded the money via the online payment company PayPal, he said Wednesday.
The 52-year-old Berkeley resident said he became suspicious when his Google Earth search showed the property was a convenience store on Duval Street.
"Another red flag was that the guy said he would pick me up at the airport and show me some tourist attractions like Truman Annex," Locker said. "I've been to Key West and I know that's now just a housing complex, then he emailed again and said he needed another $700 for repairs -- another big red flag."
Locker eventually told the scammer he would have a friend living in Key West meet him at the property to hand over the additional money and to look at the rental. "I never heard back," Locker said.
In the past six months, about a dozen people have reported similar scams to the Key West Police Department, Community Affairs Officer Steve Torrence said. Locker's description of the advertisement being "just a few hundred dollars shy of other ads" is consistent with other complaints, Torrence said.
"The pricing is not always really low," Torrence said. "The scams are usually 'just below' what the ballpark prices are, but other times they seem too good to be true. Too low."
Unlike Locker, many visitors may have no rental pricing reference or local real estate knowledge, which makes them more vulnerable to the scammers, Torrence said.
Most often, the scammers post fake pictures of a property that's not really at the advertised location or they create a fake address. One reported case listed a vacant lot on Duval Street.
Detectives are developing possible charges related to some of the reported scams, but the investigation is ongoing, Torrence said.
Key West Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Virginia Panico advised tourists or anyone looking to rent property to call the city or chamber first and ask if the renter is known.
"Sometimes this type of thing amazes me," Panico said. "Often there's no backup if you can't dispute a credit card charge, and if they get your money in that case, you're stuck."
Locker began his own investigation after he realized he had been duped and found some similarities among the ads on craigslist.
"I found more than half of them wanted money upfront and their grammar was not good," Locker said. "You see the pattern. Of the 20 or so requests I emailed to people, I told all of them that a friend of mine would meet them at the property with the money. Very few got back to me after that."