BY ARIEL HERNANDEZ
It was the worst situation I had ever experienced. Never had I imagined falling victim to a scam. But then again, I’m a 22 year-old, semi fresh-out-of-college, journalist, seeking affordable housing on a below average salary. I was the prime target for an online scammer. However, I didn’t know it until I fell victim to being scammed for $1,400.
It was early June and I was on every apartment renting website you could possibly think of, looking for what I considered to be “affordable housing” in New York City. I was on Zillow.com, which according to their website is “the leading real estate and rental marketplace,” when I came across a one-bedroom apartment for $800 in Brooklyn. The price was perfect and the pictures were decent enough. I filled in the information requested on the right-side of the screen to contact the property owner and within hours I received a response (grammatical errors within quotes are intended).
“Thanks for your interest in my apartment. I am Kinney John Lee a professional piano/music theory teacher, I’m easy going and friendly. I like Music and have deep interests in traveling. I respect every religion and love to hang around with people and i am definitely not a trouble maker and very helpful in nature. I am currently living in (Great Falls,Montana) with my wife and kids and we will be here for long that is why am renting out my apartment,i need you to be a perfect fit for my apartment in my absent. My apartment is available for rent including Utilities and Appliances and it’s available for a short or long term lease which ever you require, my apartment is Fully Furnished & Can Be Made Unfurnished if you want as there is an extra Room which can be made as store for you if you need an extra room. We left behind facilities which is included in the rent per month, the kitchen is fully equipped with all Cooking Utensils, Refrigerator-Freezer, Oven Microwave, Dishwasher, Washing Machine, Dryer, Cable, TV, Internet, Central Heating, Stereo, Air Conditioning, Parking and More!.”
Note: What I didn’t know then but I know now, after deciding to read the “Beware of Scams and Other Internet Fraud” on Zillow’s website, is that there were three red flags in that email. The first two is the fact that he was a long-distance landlord and what he was offering was ‘too good to be true’. The third, which should have been an immediate no, as a professional writer, is that the email was filled with spelling and grammatical errors.
However, I was desperate. The man continued by asking me to answer questions, which he claims to be the rental application form, along the lines of what’s my name, where do I currently live, my age, occupation and other personal information. As he requested, I answered the questions, in which he immediately responded saying that he wants to rent out his apartment to me.
“Moreover i can see your willingness in this rent, which is why I shall be giving you my property for rent, and i have proceeded with all arrangement for you to rent my apartment. I have everything set and ready for you to move in as soon as you are ready, the keys and document of the apartment will be delivered to you on a next day air delivery through DHL. Also will like you to know if you are okay with making the first 2 months rent, you get 1 month free, so that two months rent will cover you for the third month. The keys and document will be delivered to the address you provided in the application and if you have other address where you want the keys to be sent to you get back to me so that i can have that done immediately.
Here are the contents that will be delivered to you via DHL courier service.
• Entrance and the rooms keys
• Paper/Permanent Apartment form
• The Apartment documented file
• Payment Receipt
I will take the keys and document to courier service office as soon as you are ready with the deposit payment and book for the delivery of the packages to you, so kindly re-confirm your delivery address carefully, so as to certify my worries about you taking charge of my apartment.”
Note: Not only had I not seen the apartment in person or was asked to do a background check but this man was requesting two months’ rent prior to sending the key.
I requested that he send me photos, which he did. I then questioned the location and the utilities he said that would be included. I told him I was suspicious about the apartment because it seemed ‘too good to be true’. He said that he was a man of God and was offended that I would think he would do something of that nature. He also sent a photo of what he claims to have been his ID.
Further on, as desperate as I was, I went along with this process. I informed him that I cannot send him the first two month’s rent, which he negotiated and said that I could send him a $600 security deposit. I told him I wanted to visit the location first before I sent any money. What happened next should have been enough.
After a long day of news writing at my office in Whitestone, I commuted to 129 Park Avenue, apt 129C in Brooklyn. There was no building labeled 129. Instead there was a building numbered ‘60’. I saw a couple of gentleman putting on roller-skates in front of the building so I asked them if they knew where 129 Park Avenue was. One of the gentlemen informed me that this building is in place of that building. He said that often times when he receives mail, it is addressed to 129 Park Avenue. I said okay and asked if there was an apartment 129C. He told me that the apartments are labeled alphabetically but none go up to 129.
Immediately I contacted ‘Kinney,’ in which he apologized for giving me the wrong address. The ‘correct’ address was 119 Park Avenue, apt 12C. Because I recall a three family building addressed 119 from when I had checked to verify building 129, I agreed to go on with the process. He then sent me a PDF rental lease. I signed it, scanned it and sent it back to him.
He then asked me to send the ‘refundable’ $600. What happened next was worse. He asked me to send him the $600 through MoneyGram and to send it to his wife Kimberly Dawn Haehnel.
Note: If this was his wife, why would she have a different last name? As a reminder, I was desperate so I was willing to take the chance without evaluating what was really going on.
He then gave me her information: PO Box 78 Sayers Road, Bastrop, Texas, 78602. I went to a MoneyGram in Flushing while on my way to work. While on the Q15 bus, I received an email from MoneyGram saying the money was picked up. I texted ‘Kinney’ saying that the money was picked up and he replied saying he will send the package that same day. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., I received not one email or text from ‘Kinney’. When I got home, I received an email stating that he had spoken to his lawyer and I had to send him $1,000 before he can send the key. The email sounded close to real so I asked him to give me until my next pay check to send him the money but because I don’t receive that much in a check, I asked if he would allow me to only send him $800. He agreed.
The day before I got paid, he emailed me asking how everything was going and if I am still planning to move into the apartment. I told him yes that I would send the money immediately Saturday, after my check was cleared. Saturday morning, I woke up at 9 a.m. just to send the money. After sending the $800 and receiving notice that the money was picked up, I again contacted ‘Kinney,’ who replied saying he will be sending out the key that day. This time not only did I not hear from him that whole day, but I had not heard from him Sunday either. Monday morning as my alarm went off for work I had an email from ‘Kinney.’ This was when I realized I was scammed.
“i got an urgent call from my Council Officer that the package which was to be delivered to you today was stopped over at the Kansas City, Missouri and when they checked the package they found out that that the name on the documents was different from the renters name and money I paid for the council tax fee is not enough that the exact amount for council tax is supposed to be $2,500, i have deposited $2,000, In which i added the part payment of the rent fees you paid to me, so the balance for the council tax is remaining $500, so i want you to try as much as possible and make the payment for the $500, so that the package can be shipped out and delivered to you immediately, Also i was informed that the package can not be delivered to you without the council tax fee been paid and the change of name on the Documents for he said that, you might be arrested for not paying the necessary charges by the FBI police and i wouldn’t want such to happen to you so all i want you to do now is to go ahead and make the balance payment for the council tax and change of Name on the documents which is $500, so i want you to try get the money and get it sent through western union so as to get it settled, so as soon as that is done the package will be shipped out to you and you’ll be receiving it tomorrow…”
I nearly died. Not literally but emotionally and mentally I was a wreck. I emailed him requesting I get my money back or the FBI would be contacted. He didn’t reply. I texted him several times, he didn’t reply. I called him but he had disconnected his phone. I filed a case on the FBI IC3 website but had not gotten a response back. I went to the precinct to file a case but because it was on the web, I would have had to go to an actual court and file a civil case against him. Because I work during the hours the court is open, that wasn’t an option. I was scammed and there was no one to blame but myself.
What’s most sad about this situation is the fact that since this happened; I’ve still been looking for an apartment and have been contacted by a handful of scammers. Only this time, I’m conscious enough to delete it and not entertain it. There are scammers out there and there’s really nothing I can do.
The reason why I chose to share my story is not to be judged for being so stupid but because I don’t want anyone else to fall victim to a scam like this one. Even if you are as desperate as I am, my best advice is to go in the more legit route and contact a realtor. Good luck on your endeavors!
Reach Ariel Hernandez at (718) 357-7400 x144 or firstname.lastname@example.org