When Scott Puls, 64, found a three bedroom, two bathroom home on Elizabeth Way in Sonora advertised on Craigslist for $800 a month, it was like a godsend.
Puls was searching for an affordable rental for almost two months since his son, who he lived with, announced his engagement to his girlfriend. Puls needed a new place to live and within his fixed-income of $2,000 a month.
“I said, wow, what a great deal,” Puls said. “I jumped on it. I check Craigslist daily. The rental search has been difficult to say the least. My son is not forcing me out, but I've just been searching to find the best deal that I can.”
A few days later, the advertisement disappeared from Craigslist. Puls believed the listing went to someone else and he shrugged it off.
This weekend, eight days after Puls sent his inquiry, a person purporting to be the owner responded to him with a message and a questionnaire.
“It gives me great joy to know that you are interested in this lovely house, my home is still very much available for rent and also ready for immediate occupancy,” said an email from a person who went by the name of John.
Puls felt suspicion mounting. The person in the email claimed the house was bequeathed to him after the death of his father a month ago. “John” was in Arizona and wanted a caretaker to maintain the property in exchange for reduced rent.
“It is not the money that is the main problem but I want you to keep it tidy all the time so that i will be glad to see it neat, as you may know I already have a place and job here in Arizona which doesn't permit me to relocate,” the email said.
“John” added he was a Christian, God-fearing person with two kids. He would visit Puls, but was in the middle of a project that could last between two and three years. The email also warned Puls not to go onto the property, but just to drive by or look at it from the exterior.
Though the email was riddled with spelling, punctuation and syntactical errors, Puls was willing to give the owner the benefit of the doubt, he said.
Puls filled out the questionnaire, but didn’t provide any personal identifying information such as a social security number. Still, he could feel the pressure and urgency in the language and frequent capitalization of the questions.
The document asked repeatedly about deposit fees in exchange for keys and documents, and even about how much money Puls had on hand.
The total move-in cost, it said, would be $1,600 for one month of rent and a security deposit.
When Puls sent the questionnaire, the person purporting to be the seller replied with the address, 22111 Elizabeth Lane.
Following his judgment, Puls drove there, near Phoenix Lake Road and the Crystal Falls area. The first thing he noticed was cars in the driveway, though he was given the impression no one should be there.
“I was seeing red flags all over the place,” Puls said.
A neighbor told Puls, the owner wasn’t dead at all, but very much alive, and living there, too.
Puls said he then realized he had almost fallen victim to an online real estate scam. He asked “John” to call him and his phone rang from a caller with an unfamiliar area code. The person had an “extremely heavy accent” and dodged Puls’ questions about why someone was there at the property.
Puls said he lost his temper and was unable to keep up the ruse. Puls told the person he was recording the call and planned to report him to law enforcement. The caller hung up.
“He was still working up to the main part of his scam. I was thinking they would either have me send them some money, saying he was going to send me the keys or paperwork,” Puls said.
Puls filed a report with the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) because he said he believed the person purporting to be the owner was out of the area.
As of Monday, Puls has not received any response by IC3 or has been contacted by the fraudulent seller again.
“In hindsight, I wish I played him a little bit more,” Puls said. “But I didn’t give him a chance to ask me for any money.”
The house was actually for sale, but not at the short-changed rental price the scam artist alleged, said Alison Daniels, Realtor and property manager for Century 21 Wildwood Properties in Twain Harte.
“I think the rental scams are a bit newer, but I have heard about them for a few years,” Daniels said. “They copy our listing but they usually list it for a much cheaper price. If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.”
Daniels, who is the listing agent for the property, said it was for sale for $350,000. The home is 1,538 square feet and located on 3.14 acres (which includes an adjoining lot). The current owners are a local couple, Daniels said.
“One of the main things with scammers, they will always be out of state where they can’t meet with you and that’s a red flag,” Daniels said.
Daniels also warned no potential renter should exchange any money unless they have met with someone in person and taken a tour of the home they planned to rent. She also warned against using Western Union money orders, and relying on a bank check where a buyer could have some recourse in blocking a payment.
She said confirming the name of a homeowner and their mailing address was also a useful tool because property records were public information.
Daniels cautioned toward the use of Craigslist when transacting big money agreements such as rents or home purchases. In the other cases of real estate scams she’s known about, they have always originated with the site, she said.
“Craigslist is the number one culprit, that’s the one scammers use,” she said.
Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Andrea Benson said the office does not receive a lot of reports on real estate and rental scams, but advised the public to be suspicious of anyone who asked for a cash deposit to see a property.
Puls said he’s still looking for a rental. They are scarce in the area, he said, and the difficulty of the search was only compounded by the presence of scammers.
“It's just extremely difficult to do it on your own when rents are so high,” he said.