Rental Scams Rock F.I. Shores

Online Scammers Target Fire Island

By Timothy Bolger

It was supposed to be a classic family vacation like any other at a relaxing Ocean Beach rental home until the homeowner arrived and demanded to know why the family was there.

As it turned out, the homeowner hadn’t rented the house, but a scammer tricked the family into believing that they had legitimately booked it after the victims responded to an online ad and wired a payment to a crook that later vanished – and it’s not the first time it’s happened on Fire Island.

“They were both flabbergasted,” Ocean Beach Police Chief George Hesse said while recalling the case, one of several like it that he’s responded to in recent years. “For the criminals it’s actually easy. People don’t verify.”

The FBI has been warning about this new take on the four-decade-old Nigerian scam since 2009. Typically, crooks advertise homes for rent at too-good-to-be-true rates on websites such as Craigslist without the actual homeowners’ knowledge or the victims able to get their money back.

Cases of victims finding themselves stranded in the village after realizing they’ve been duped are not uncommon. About a dozen cases have been reported in Ocean Beach over the past two years. Statistics for the rest of FI were not immediately available.

Hesse said victims he’s seen have lost between $1,000 and $2,000 at a time. In one recent case, a victim was reported to be scammed out of $1,374 at an Ocean Breeze home on June 16.

“Just had another scam listing for rental of my home on Ocean Road,” Priscilla Watts posted on the Ocean Beach Bulletin Board Facebook page on July 14. “The renters showed up with suitcases, etc. for what they expected was a weekend of rental they had wired money for. Oddly they had my address and a picture of a different house.”

When such rental scam cases are reported to village police, the department refers them to Suffolk County police and the FBI. The chief doesn’t recall hearing of any arrests from the cases he’d referred. Of course, these are not the only type of scams pulled.

Tekla Vanderplas recalled how a group of what she called “professional squatters” moved into her house, refused to leave and trashed her house before she won a judgment against the men in small claims court several years ago. The experience was enough for her to move off Fire Island.

As for online rental scams, awareness is the best defense against getting scammed, authorities said. Hesse said to only deal with reputable local real estate brokers when renting homes. The FBI said to be suspicious if a landlord asks to only use a wire transfer service, beware of emails from “landlords” in broken English and be suspicious of rental rates significantly lower than the average for the area.