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The Setup, The Pitch and the (Agent’s) Stolen Identity

The Phone Call

In my job I get a “what-the-heck” phone call almost every day.  This week I received one that I had to share.  What would you think if you found out that someone was posing as you, the listing agent, in an effort to steal money from unsuspecting consumers?  Do I have your attention?

The Nigerian “Owner”

An agent from our Association called to say one of his REO listings showed up on Craigslist at an incredibly low rental price.   The Listing is a very nice home and the rental price was ridiculously low, which is why a potential renter contacted the listing agent after driving by the home.  The potential renter e-mailed the listing agent to confirm the rental asking price.  This was the first indication to the listing agent, that his listing had been hijacked.  Upon further inquiry the agent found that someone reportedly in or from Nigeria, had used the Agent’s name as his own.  Here is the e-mail the “Nigerian Seller” sent to the consumer: (I’ve blurred out the agents name)

To sell the entire scam even more, this “owner” sent a copy of his “passport” to the consumer:

And they also were kind enough to send over their very own rental agreement:

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What the Heck Just Happened?

To make it clear, the scammer took the listing agents name, applied it to mocked up Passport, took the listing agent’s listing and entered it in Craigslist.  The scammer also created an e-mail address via yahoo with the listing agent’s name.  Using this agent’s stolen identity he then proceeded to attempt to steal money from a renter.  Luckily, in this case, the renter called the agent, from information on his For Sale sign to verify the terms of the e-mail.  

Who do you go to? 

After a variety of phone calls on behalf and by the Listing Agent, we found that no one really had jurisdiction over this issue.  Although in Virginia this could possibly hold felony and misdemeanor charges, due to fraud, false pretense, electronic fraud, practicing real estate without a license, etc… if the person is really out of the US, the FBI (the only department that would actually take remote responsibility) said that an international crime such as this could not be pursued.  Both the listing agent and myself are convinced that someone should be able to do more, but we haven’t been given guidance from our Real Estate Board or any governmental officials.  If you can help or if you have had similar issues, please let me know.  We’d be happy to keep working toward a resolve. Of course, this ranks right up there with holding money for the dethroned prince of Alibaba….

Can you prevent this?

I don’t know that this can really be prevented, but it illustrates a clear example of how vulnerable we all are.  I offer these recommendations:

  •  Create a Google Alert for EVERY listing and for your name.  Even if you don’t have a concern about your identity being stolen, you should still know if your listing is somewhere other than where you put it.  There have been several instances of an agent’s listing being marketed poorly by the Seller or collaborated on some random site, as a Foreclosure when it really isn’t.
  • Brokers should develop reporting policies for any type of acts, such as this.  Try to develop a way to track these issues, to see if your company is a target.
  • Know who you should report these types of issues to and if your Real Estate Board has authority to act on them.
  • Enter your listings in systems like Postlets or other venues that make sure your listings are saturating the Internet, and that consumers maybe be enlighten to the fact that there are discrepancies between a bogus listing and your own.

Written By

Matthew Rathbun is a Virginia Licensed Broker and Director of Professional Development for Coldwell Banker Elite, in Fredericksburg Virginia. He has opened and managed real estate firms, as well as coached and mentored agents and Brokers. As a Residential REALTOR®, Matthew was a high volume agent and past REALTOR® Rookie of the Year & Virginia Association Instructor of the Year. You can follow him on Twitter as "MattRathbun" and on Facebook. Matthew's blog is



  1. Maureen Francis

    January 2, 2009 at 8:30 am

    The scammers are always looking for a new gig. I really like your idea of the google alert for the listing address. Thanks!

  2. Kris Berg

    January 2, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Happened to me months ago, but I didn’t get the full “passport” treatment. Because of the internet saturation you recommend, the potential lessee sent me an email to warn me. By the time I went to report the scam, the Craigslist listing was awol.

    I, too, like the idea of a Google alert for the address. Genius.

  3. Elaine Reese

    January 2, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Does Google crawl Craigslist? For instance if we set up the address on Alerts, will Google find it on Craigslist.

  4. Matthew Rathbun

    January 2, 2009 at 11:20 am


    I am not sure that Craigslist if indexed for a variety of reasons, the least of which is that Craigslist entries only linger for seven days (as I recall).

    However there are a variety of other webpages that collect listing data from IDX feeds and could be a problem. I haven’t managed a brokerage in two years, but there are sites that list listing me that way.

    We’ve also seen sites that collect listing information inaccurately. An agent here locally found her listing as a foreclosure, which is wasn’t. However, she used the phrase “Not a Foreclosure” and the aggregator picked up only on the word foreclosure…

    It’s extra work, I know – but it’s important to know what’s going on with your listings.

  5. Elaine Reese

    January 2, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Thanks, Matthew. Regarding Craigslist, I know several agents in this market have somehow set up a feed of Craigslist listings to be sent to their web sites. They use a specific domain for the name of each suburb. Then the site has the complete list (including postlets) posted as a duplicate to Craigslist.

    I didn’t think about the benefit it would have for other sites.

    BTW, a listing stays active for, I think, around 40-some days. Most people update it more often than that.

  6. Ira Serkes

    January 3, 2009 at 12:25 am

    Love google alerts!

    I set up a series for “serkes” “ira serkes” “carol serkes” amongst others.

    And thus, a few days ago, I was alerted that the local newspaper had blogged about one of my listings (was once a grande dame) at 1951 Thousand Oaks, Berkeley. They used my name, Serkes, so the alert popped up.

    So I set up several more google alerts

    “# StreetName”
    “1951 Thousand”

    The quotes make it an exact match. A narrow search.

    and also

    # Berkeley

    1951 Berkeley

    A very broad search.

    Anything with 1951 and Berkeley (though not necessarily together) show up

    So I get things that happened in Berkeley in 1951 (the equivalent of a false positive) but also actual matches.

    Just do it… you’ll be glad you did.

  7. Benjamin Bach

    January 3, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Thanks Matthew
    Every time I’ve posted a For Rent ad on craigslist, I get at least 1 phishy inquiry… Usually offering to pay a years rent up front, via cashiers cheque. The scam is to try to get you to cash the cheque and send money back before the cashiers cheque clears, leaving you on the hook for a few grand.

    Remember… if it seems to good to be true…

  8. Paula Henry

    January 4, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    I set up a regular listing and get spam. It is wise to be careful – I guess the con artist are non stop creating new ideas to ensure they neve have to work.

  9. John Wake

    January 5, 2009 at 12:07 am

    Adding a Google alert for my name is a great idea! Done.

  10. linsey

    January 7, 2009 at 12:12 am

    I admit – this scam leaves my jaw dropped. I appreciate you bringing this to our attention; I’ll be forwarding it to my Mastermind group and my agents.

    The unfortunate side effect of a market like this is the large number of scams. Even on a smaller scale – I see renters paying rent on a home in foreclosure, I see owners taking a deposit on an 18 month lease only to immediately go into foreclosure, and more of the same.

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention Matthew!

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