By Robert L. Cain
I was flabbergasted when I read about Dave. He is a landlord who was scammed by a fraud he should have spotted in short order. But Dave was in a hurry. He had no tenant and the mortgage payment was coming up in a few days. He thought he had a live one. What he had was a crook.
Dave got an email from someone who identified himself as Mr. Okoye, who was currently “out of the country” and who wanted to rent sight unseen the property Dave had advertised on Craigslist. Apparently the pictures in the ad were enough to convince this tenant what a spectacular deal the property was. What Dave didn’t pay attention to were the grammar and spelling errors in the email that came from a free Gmail account.
Gmail and other free email accounts are not a sure sign of fraud. Many perfectly honest people use them. But that is a red flag that invites more attention to authenticity of that particular tenant. Then there were the grammar and spelling errors. Those too don’t necessarily mean someone is dishonest since many native English speakers don’t seem to realize that grammar rules exist. Even so, that was two red flags.
The third red flag was an add-on to the grammar and spelling errors. First were the all-caps words. Most English speakers rarely capitalize all the letters in a word in an email unless they are “shouting.” This one had a couple involving the NIGERIAN OIL AND GAS CONSORTIUM, INC this tenant supposedly worked for. In addition were the non-native usages such as “incase,” “want to renting,” and such. This one should have jumped at Dave. But Dave was in a hurry.
Dave had the good sense to ask for proof, so he emailed back to Mr. Okoye that he needed a completely filled-out rental application, and evidence of income and the right to live in the United States. Mr. Okoye was eager to comply. He dutifully filled out the rental applications and emailed it back along with a copy of the letter that offered Okoye the job in Dave’s town that came from a large, well-known, local company. Also included was a copy of the visa from the US State Department for Mr. Okoye. But just to prove what a terrific risk he was, Okoye included his bank statement from the Nigerian bank that showed 19.8 million Nigerian Naira in his account, about $100,000 US.
It all looked good to Dave, so he emailed back to Mr. Okoye that he would rent the property to him. What he needed was first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit. No problem, wrote back Okoye, he would send it by cashier’s check. Dave heaved a sigh of relief. He would be able to pay the mortgage this month.
The cashier’s check arrived a few days later, but it was for $1,000 more than Dave had asked for. Okoye emailed back when Dave brought that to his attention that the bank had made a mistake. Would Dave please send Okoye a refund of the difference. And Dave did! That day!
That was the last Dave ever heard from Okoye. The next week, Dave’s bank called him to say the cashier’s check was a phony. Dave was out the $1,000 he had sent to Okoye. When Dave investigated further, he discovered that the large, well-known, local company that supposedly offered Okoye a job had never heard of him. The job-offer letter was phony. And the visa issued by the US State Department? That was phony, too. Who knows about the bank statement, but those are easiest of all to dummy up. Okoye had pretty good computer skills that enabled him to falsify documents that could fool the unwary and ingenuous.
So what should Dave have done? You know as well as I do. The obvious first thing to do would have been to call the HR department of the large, well-known, local company to verify that they had indeed offered Okoye a job.
Dave also could have gone to the US State Department’s website to see what an actual US Visa looked like. Of course, Okoye could have done the same thing and simply copied the graphic and used Photoshop to create one for himself. I just did a search on duckduckgo and came up with multiple images of visas.
Marv Steier, President of Tenant Verification Services, Inc. makes a good point when he says, “We were all born with common sense and gut instinct; this can be a valuable tool when deciding whether to rent to a prospective tenant.”
What jumped out with Dave and Okoye? First, this prospective tenant wanted to rent the property sight unseen. Is that always a bad sign? Not always, but something that invites further attention. Second, he was a foreign national coming to work in the United States. Do you know how hard it is for a foreigner to get approval to work in this country legally with the State Department cutting back on H1-B visas for the most skilled workers wanting to come to the US to work. If Dave had been paying attention, he would have realized that the chances of getting an H1-B visas, which is probably what Okoye would have needed, were slim to none and that a simple visa allowing someone to enter the United States would not allow him or her to work here.
The simple mantra about tenant selection is “verify everything.” If something looks wrong, is something can’t be verified figure it is a lie. It is up to the applicant to prove he or she is qualified, not the landlord. If the applicant can’t prove what he or she claims is true, reject.
And Dave? He isn’t just Dave. He’s also a Jim, a Barbara, a Jack, a Susan and many other landlords who were in so much of a hurry that they ignored red flags that invited skepticism, the landlords who were sucked into accepting the lies and deceit of a supposed prospective tenant. It has happened more far more often than once. Verify everything. And temper the impulse to hurry no matter how hurried the prospective tenant is.