News | Such a Deal: An e-mail scam targets clients of a Salt Lake City rental agency 

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Back in the days of the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes—when TV crews surprised housewives at their suburban homes with flowers, balloons, oversized checks and Ed McMahon—winning the big one was a huge deal. But nowadays, almost everybody is a winner—at least according to the variety of e-mails flooding inboxes with announcements of winning the U.K. lottery or pleas to look after the fortunes of the fleeing Prince of Nigeria.

While most of these spam-scammers find little success in their ploys, a new variation on the scheme showing up in Utah is rattling area landlords. Employees of rental agency Partlow Properties (which advertises in City Weekly and Salt Lake City daily newspapers) were surprised to hear from several people calling about a house in Federal Heights listed at $2,800 a month but which the callers claimed was offered by Partlow on Craigslist.com for only $700. The confusion stemmed from the fact that Partlow’s marketing director, Savannah Beachum, was listed on Craigslist.com as the property owner. The real Savannah Beachum works at Partlow; someone posing as Beachum is presenting herself as a nice old woman who lives in Africa and needs someone to care for her three-bedroom, three-bath house for the next couple of years while she’s away.

When Kristen Cambridge and her husband cruised by the house to check it out, the couple was doubtful, but for $700 a month, Kristen thought it was maybe a lucky find and at least worth checking out. The couple learned the property was gorgeous—with a well-manicured lawn, redwood decking and hardwood floors—and that three other people were touring the house. All had received the same mysterious e-mail from the woman in Africa.

“I wasn’t about to just hand over my money to some lady in Africa,” Kristen says. “That’s why we went to check it out and found the other people there checking it out—all with the same story.” The Cambridges quickly discovered the Partlow Properties sign on the home’s front lawn had information that didn’t match up with the story supposedly from Africa. “That’s when we decided we’d been scammed, and we all just left,” Kristen Cambridge says.

The Cambridges and the others felt pretty silly for even making the drive to the place and, while they weren’t about to wire the requested $2,500 deposit before getting the keys—they did send off a completed rental “application.”

“I’m a little worried that they now have my name and address on there,” Kristen Cambridge says, adding that, luckily, they didn’t include Social Security Numbers on the form. While it quickly became clear the scheme was too good to be true, so no one wired a deposit, the fact remains the scammer had already taken on the identity of a Partlow employee as part of the con. That makes it hard not to imagine a fraud like this could be used to possibly steal an applicant’s personal information, if not their money.

Partlow Properties and the real Savannah Beachum are livid that even with just a phony e-mail somebody pretended to be her. “I’m nervous about my identity,” Beachum says. “I don’t know how they got my name [but] I hope nobody falls for this scam. I’d feel responsible just because they used my name.”

With a tightening rental market continuing to squeeze potential tenants, the lure of cheap apartments is certain to catch the attention of many. And a younger student population with little experience in the housing market may be just the target group scam artists are hoping to reel in.

“A rental population can be young and maybe inexperienced,” says Mark Steinagell, director of the Utah Division of Real Estate, whose office has been seeing more reports of attempted scams such as this one. While there hasn’t been a confirmed victim yet, the threat is still something the division takes seriously. “If somebody is acting like a real estate agent and advertising properties, it matters a great deal to us,” Steinagell says.

Steinagell says people can always connect with the state’s Real Estate Division (realestate.utah.gov) to check up on fishy rental deals and otherwise can apply some simple rules of thumb like doing as the Cambridges did: Check out the property firsthand. “If people are getting offered these things, don’t ever wire money and don’t send your personal information,” Steinagell says. “[The scammers] are probably willing to perpetrate other forms of identity theft.”

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More by Eric S. Peterson

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