Sweet rental offer didn't pass gut check

Adam Witty stands in front of his James Island condominium Wednesday. A potential renter responding to a Craigslist posting asked Witty to write a check to a third party who was to have decorated the unit for the renter. An overseas call to a phone number

Adam Witty of Charleston considers himself a cautious person. He runs a book publishing company and is versed in the adage that something that sounds too good to be true, probably is.

So when Witty recently posted a James Island condo unit for rent on the popular classified ad Web site Craigslist and received an e-mail from a man outside the country wanting to rent the unit for two years, he was skeptical. "I'm probably more diligent and cautious than most people. It didn't sit right in my gut."

The man said his name was "Weaser Kent" and that his employer in the United Kingdom was relocating him to Charleston. Kent said he would send along a check to cover the security deposit and a month's rent. He just had one request: Would Witty mind deducting the money owed and forwarding the balance on to a third party, an interior decorator who would be sprucing up the condo. "You will forward the rest to the Decorators so I can have the place all prepared for my arrival," wrote the man.

When Witty called the international phone number Kent listed in his e-mail, a man with a thick African accent answered. "I could barely understand him, and he could barely understand me," Witty said.

Witty told the man he wasn't comfortable writing a check to someone else and that he would first need a rental agreement completed. That's when Kent became evasive, and that was the last Witty heard from him.

Witty said his internal alarm went up, and he went public with what happened in hopes of preventing others from falling prey to the scam.

Chris Hadley with the Better Business Bureau in Columbia said the scam contains some of the classic elements of fraud: A great-sounding deal, someone out of the country, and a request for money to be sent or wired to a third party.

Hadley said his office has not yet heard of the scam using Craigslist, but he plans to alert his staff about it.

The worst part about such scams is that banks will sometimes cash the check before it is flagged as bogus. By then, the victim may have already forwarded a legitimate check to a third party. "The victim is left holding the bag," Hadley said.

Similar scams involving Craigslist are popping up around the country. Authorities in Portland, Ore., recently discovered a scheme in which people posted "for rent" ads based on details from legitimate home listings in the area in hopes of duping potential renters into providing financial information or cash deposits.

Two men were recently arrested in California after they were caught posing as landlords of a vacant home they had broken into and posting it for rent on Craigslist. Police found evidence that the men had collected thousands of dollars in rent and security deposits from people who thought they were renting the home.

It appears nothing is sacred, not even the war dead. Authorities in Michigan are investigating a recent posting on Craigslist that offered to sell a car owned by a U.S. soldier whose remains were discovered in Iraq last week after a year-long search.

A representative for Craigslist could not be reached for comment on any of the recent scams. But the company offers tips and warnings on its Web site that, if followed, would highlight most dubious posts and inquiries.