Scam dupes University-area renters

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University of Minnesota officials are warning students looking to sublet their apartments to be a bit more cautious in the wake of several swindling cases.

Since May there have been at least six cases of housing fraud that Student Legal Services is aware of, said Mark Karon, director of the office.

Karon said he has noticed a few common links among the reported incidents. Students will receive an inquiry from someone who lives overseas. That person will offer to send a money order or bank check for an amount that exceeds the rent. They will ask the student to cash the check and wire back the difference.

He said he is aware of one student who wired money to the potential renter and has not been able to recover the money.

Karon did not release the amount of money lost.

About 52,000 students attend the University, and about 43,000 live off campus, said Laurie McLaughlin, director of Housing and Residential Life.

Students who try to sublet their off-campus apartments might advertise on Web sites such as Craig’s List or the University’s off-campus housing Web site.

Sarah Anne Slauson, a Spanish and philosophy junior, wanted to sublet her apartment for the summer so she decided to advertise it on Craig’s List.

She promptly received a response from a woman named Sharon Terbond, who said she was a student studying in England. She told Slauson she wanted to sublease the apartment and said her father would send her the money for rent – two $2,500 checks – part of which she wanted Slauson to deposit to cover the rent, and the remaining amount she wanted wired back to her.

Slauson received the checks and deposited them. Because they were international checks, she had to wait a few weeks for the checks to clear, Slauson said.

She kept getting e-mails from Terbond, asking about the delay.

“She was very forceful,” Slauson said.

She kept asking her to hurry and get the money because she had to get a plane ticket to the United States, Slauson said.

“She said ‘I have to get into town by Monday,’ ” Slauson said. “But every week she would say Monday. There was never a date, it was just always Monday.”

Eventually, the bank discovered the checks were fraudulent. It was reported, but nothing further has happened, she said.

It’s difficult to pursue a suspect in an incident like this because the wired money can’t be traced, Karon said.

“You’re wiring that person the funds, and it immediately clears the bank; you can’t put a stop on it or anything like that,” he said.

Bill Dane, staff attorney at Student Legal Services, said finding the person who sent the money is the hardest part.

“The impossible aspect of it is to find the person who has actually taken the money, because they’re a long way away,” Dane said.

He said a lot of students are becoming savvy to this kind of fraud, but if they do fall victim to this, they should report it.

Steve Johnson, deputy chief for the University Police Department, said that although it’s difficult to find the suspect, it is worth reporting.

“It’s important to get the word out so that other people aren’t scammed the same way,” he said. “It’ll help remind people that you should always try to be smart about these things and make safe decisions.”

Computer science junior Joe Chapman, who is a Daily employee, experienced a situation similar to Slauson’s.

He received checks from a potential subleasee, cashed them and was prepared to wire the money back. Before he completed the transaction, Western Union told him the initial check was fraudulent.

“I’m the most thankful guy in the world that I didn’t lose $2,000 that I don’t have,” Chapman said.

Slauson and Chapman warned students who wish to sublet their apartments to be cautious. Chapman encouraged students to know what the scams are in order to avoid them. Slauson’s solution was to note on her listing that only those who could view the apartment should contact her.

Slauson said after the whole incident she felt not only naïve but also offended.

“We were talking about ourselves here and there in the e-mails, and she had no interest in becoming friends,” Slauson said. “This person obviously had no objective but to steal my money.”

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