Editor’s note: Meet Marcie Geffner at the upcoming Real Estate Connect conference in San Francisco, which runs from Aug. 5-7, 2009. She will be available to meet with conference attendees from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the Palace Hotel’s Ralstom Room. Click here to send Marcie a message.

Is your house for rent? Or for sale? If you answered no, think again, and then take a look online. You may be surprised at what you find out.

Surprise was but one of the choice emotions that Sarah Stelmok, a homeowner and real estate agent in Fredericksburg, Va., felt when she discovered that a home she owns had been offered as a rental on a prominent Web site without her knowledge.

The home is a 1,200-square-foot townhouse in downtown Fredericksburg. It has two bedrooms and one-and-one-half bathrooms and is located in a desirable area that boasts a city-run stock fishing pond, dog park, historic district, tennis and racquetball courts, a small college and a large city park.

Stelmok says she and her husband lived in the townhouse until 18 months ago, when they bought and moved into their "dream home" just five blocks away. They put the townhouse on the market but withdrew the listing after eight months and rented it to friends until they, too bought a home of their own. The Stelmoks soon found new tenants who planned to move into the townhouse in mid-summer.

Along the way, both Stelmok and her husband were contacted by two different women who wanted to know whether the Stelmoks actually owned the townhouse. Both of the women had seen the townhouse advertised for rent on the Web site, complete with photos of the interior, and one of the women had also found a virtual tour that Stelmok had created when the property had been listed for sale.

Both women said they’d been in contact via e-mail with a person who claimed to be the owner of the townhouse and who confirmed that the monthly rent was just $900, a 25 percent discount for such a home in that neighborhood.

Stelmok sent an e-mail of her own to the imposter, who had signed himself with the name "Michael Richie" and said he was in Nigeria. A bizarre, hilarious, sad and scary correspondence ensued in which Stelmok, in the guise of an eager renter, attempted to extract a bank account number from "Richie" while "Richie" attempted to convince Stelmok to wire $1,400 to him by Western Union.

"Richie" sent Stelmok a Rent Application Form, which she filled out with fake information and dutifully sent back, only to be told by "Richie" that her "application" to rent her own townhouse had been "approved." When she balked at wiring the funds, "Richie" helpfully sent her the addresses and hours of operation of five Western Union offices in Fredericksburg. …CONTINUED

"I learned a lot about how far they are willing to go," Stelmok says. "It took about three-and-a-half weeks, and that was a long time for him to be on the hook. He was angry and frustrated because I wasn’t sending the money. I wanted to get some information that we could track."

Stelmok wasn’t able to tease any useful information out of "Richie," but she filed a report about him and his activities through an FBI Web site that tracks federal Internet crime complaints. She also found out that such crimes are rarely investigated unless substantial sums of money are lost to the scammer.

She posted her correspondence with "Richie" on her blog, http://sarahiouslyspeaking.com/, as a cautionary tale for other homeowners.

"I didn’t like that they were hurting the consumer," she told me. "We have a lot of foreclosures, and if someone has been foreclosed on, they need a house quick and this man is going to prey on that. That was very upsetting to me."

The potential scale of the operation also motivated Stelmok to act as she did. While "Richie" was trying to get "only" $1,400 from the Stelmoks to rent their own townhouse, if that sum were multiplied by, say, 100 people, it would add up to quite a lot of money, she noted.

Whether "Richie" is still in operation is a mystery since he hasn’t replied to any of Stelmok’s friendly missives since the one in which she revealed her ownership of the supposedly for-rent townhouse. Certainly, though, others of his (or her) ilk are on the prowl. Homeowners and prospective renters should remain wary.

Marcie Geffner is a veteran real estate reporter and former managing editor of Inman News. Her news stories, feature articles and columns about home buying, home selling, homeownership and mortgage financing have been published by a long list of real estate Web sites and newspapers. "House Keys," a weekly column about homeownership, is syndicated in print and on the Web by Inman News. Readers are cordially invited to "friend" the author on Facebook.


What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.

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