Crime

Online scammer uses Zillow.com to lure victims

A family suddenly transferred from Key Largo to Georgia posted its canalfront house up for sale on a popular real-estate website, offering a bargain price of $10,000.

The stunningly low offer was, of course, a complete fraud that sought to scam hopeful buyers out of a $1,850 "deposit" sent via money service.

"Our team immediately removed this listing from Zillow" after being alerted to the ad, said Amanda Woolley of www.Zillow.com. "The person who posted it was also blocked from posting additional listings of any kind."

A Long Island resident keeping an eye out for an affordable Keys getaway received a lengthy e-mail response from the non-existent seller that describes a fictional "Mr. and Mrs. Williams" family in some detail ("...Daughter Jennifer, 19 years, attends University of Georgia, studying medicine...").

The scammer described his church and reasons for wanting to sell quickly "in a cheaper price." The e-mail was loaded with grammar and capitalization errors.

County property appraisal records show the two-bedroom home on Seagate Boulevard, assessed at more than $300,000, is owned by a couple not named Williams.

"I had not heard of this particular variation but we get scam reports all the time involving requests to send money," said Deputy Becky Herrin, spokeswoman for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office.  

"There are different permutations on this kind of scam," Herrin said. "The bottom line is to be suspicious of anything that seems too good to be true. Never send money quickly if you don't know who you're dealing with."

The prospective home buyer, who asked not to be named, spotted the sketchy details in the e-mails and never sent money. "I led the guy on and got the price of the [inspection deposit] down to a mere $1,000," she said. "He told me I had nothing to worry about."

Fake vacation-rental ads posted online have long been a problem in the Keys.

A former Tavernier real-estate agent spent two years in custody while deputies investigated hundreds of charges lodged against him for advertising vacation stays at properties he did not manage. After John Williams pleaded guilty last October, he was released for time served and given 28 years of probation.

Key West police expect more vacation-rental complaints as the busy season arrives, said city spokesman Alyson Crean.

"Sadly, more often than not, it's too late for anybody to do anything," Crean said. "These people send money, show up with luggage in their hands and find out the people who live in their 'vacation rental' are clueless about any of it."

Some of the fake ads "look very professional," she said.

In another scam, Monroe County residents should be wary of telephone calls that demand immediate payment of utility bills or face having power shut off.

A Key West resident recently fell victim to a caller who instructed her to buy a cash card and read him the numbers off the back.

"We get these in waves," said Keys Energy Services spokesman Julio Torrado said. "We might not get any reports for weeks, then get 10 or 15 in a week. Of course, we don't know how many people get these calls and just hang up, and don't let anyone know."

The Florida Keys Electric Cooperative has received some queries about phony calls but none within the last few months, an executive said.

"I think most folks now are well aware of this," Torrado said. "At no point will a phone call be the first time you hear from us."

 The Lower Keys utility sends warning letters and hand-delivers a final warning, he said.

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