Close Call

I came thaat close to being the victim of a con job.

Funny story.

I’m trying to rent out my spare bedroom, so I took a nice picture and placed an ad, “Pleasant Room in a Pleasant House with a Pleasant Woman,” on Craigslist, Madison. I hoped it would attract a graduate student. My neighborhood isn’t exactly happening enough for an undergrad.

I got three replies, all purporting to be women from further away than I had intended to reach. Two said they were Chinese and one said she had grown up in Venice, Italy, but was now living in Alaska. I was drawn to the Venetian, of course, but she had also claimed to be a “nice Christian woman,” which I am not, so she was out. Of the other two, one included a picture. I answered that the room was hers if she wanted it.

Her written English was a bit broken – as time went on the syntax put me in mind of a Nigerian Prince – but for all I knew, it might be common among many furriners to always wish a correspondent a “great day” and be “happy to read from them.”

She said her name was Dalona Hylton, from Independence, MO, but raised in China. She also claimed to be a nurse for UNICEF, but was coming back to the States with a nursing job in Madison. Actually, she didn’t volunteer that last – I had to ask twice what she planned to do in Madison. When she asked if she could count on “15 minutes of my time” to receive her “car and artworks,” which were being shipped to me (I had since given her my address), I said sure, but was thinking, “Hmmm. Artworks? Is she smuggling Ming vases?”

So I googled Dalona Hylton, and found her. She had joined an online pen pal site, hoping for a “man of her own.” The picture depicted the same woman in the picture that “Dalona Hylton” had sent me. The discovery both reassured me (that she was real) and troubled me (no mention of her being a nurse).

Then came a text from the delivery people. Was I going to be home to receive her things? I responded that I would be home all weekend. The next kicker was that the cashier for the delivery people would have to be paid before they could deliver anything. I responded that it would be Dalona’s responsibility. They responded that she had told them she was sending me a check. I asked how much the delivery would be. They said $922. I said don’t be silly, and I don’t have a check yet.

You’d think I’d be completely certain by now that I was going to be victimized, but since the response was that they were quite willing to wait, I was again put a little off my guard. My only excuse is that there was always the possibility of this being on the up and up, somehow, and how handy a nurse would be to have around the house. Also, if I refused to pay for anything, what were they going to get out of it and how?

There was another little wrinkle I would have caught earlier had I thought to double-check. I asked her where she would be flying from, and she said she was working in Beijing and would be flying from Beijing International Airport. If I had gone back to Dalona Hylton’s pen pal page, I would have noticed that it was posted in December, 2017, from Independence. I found that one later.

In the meantime, you see, she said her father was sending a check, and she gave me a tracking number. That tracking number finally said it had been delivered to some place in California (another patsy?). When I told Dalona this, she said she had made a mistake in one number (I didn’t compare them) and gave me a new one. This one said it had left somewhere in Queens and gone to the International Distribution Center in Jamaica, NY, and that it was, from there, in transit to the destination. That check never arrived. A week and a half later, I was told another check was on the way, and this time when I tracked it, it said it would be delivered by 8:00 on Wednesday (Jan. 24), and it was. A check for over $1,800 dollars. Which was more than I had required – we had settled on $700 for first month’s rent, plus holding the room for most of January + $922 for delivery charges. This tracking originated in Tallahassee, FL (she had told me before she thought the check was coming from Tennessee - easily confused with Tallahassee, I supposed), but the check I received was from a Chicago firm.

I emailed her right back and said that as soon as the check cleared, I would get in touch with the delivery people (who, by the way, also sounded sketchy, but sometimes my curiosity and optimism know few bounds) and things could get rolling.

Now here I want to emphasize that I was more than 75% certain that this was a shakedown, but I couldn’t quite figure out how they thought they would get my money from me. My plan was to deposit the check and wait until it cleared – something my credit union makes very easy to check on – before I used any of it, and to tell her that the overage would be applied to March rent.

This is where I nearly made a huge mistake. You see, I wanted to wait until the bank notified me that the check was bad, at which point I would email something snarky to her and get back to advertising for a roombuddy, this time specifying a personal interview. My assumption was that the bank would not give me money based on that check, that even if I deposited it, they would hold it until it went through. Given that assumption, I had not planned on telling the bank I thought it might be a bad check. They would notify me if it was. I still couldn’t figure out how she was going to make money from me, if I wasn’t going to use any of my own money on her behalf. I still held open the (very small) possibility that this was legit, even though I was no longer certain I even wanted this woman in my house. She wasn’t presenting with much personality. But I was mostly curious, and curiosity could have killed this cat.

The teller at the bank took one look and asked if I needed to access the funds right away. I told her a little bit of the story, and that I would need to use it to pay delivery people, but that I was not going to use it unless it cleared. She suggested that I not deposit it, and said it was very likely a fraud. It wasn’t until I read a little more about these scams when I got home that I found out that it is not uncommon for banks to go ahead and deposit the money, making it available for immediate use, *before* ascertaining that the check is a bad one, and then holding you liable. See below.

I could have felt assured that the check was good, and paid the $922 out of it, only to be told a story about held-up visas or some such thing and asked for the money back. By that time, the bank would have ascertained that the check was fraudulent and I would have been out the money. Seems a long way to go for $922, but there is likely another avenue they can follow to winkle the money out of you. But my bank – excuse me, credit union – was on the ball, and believe me it was a relief to find that I didn’t have to play games with Dalona Hylton anymore and that I would not be out any money.

I do hope there’s an end to it.

One problem is that, wherever I looked online, I could find no other examples of scams analogous to mine (would-be renters preying on landlords). And yet, after I reposted the ad on February 1st, I received three others, much more obvious than Dalona’s first enquiries, which were shorter and more modest. Here’s an example:

Thanks for the cordial response, My name is Shanina Jones I'm 25yrs old.(female) I was born in China Beijing i speak both language, my Dad is from US while my Mum is from CHINA… I went to Beijing University Of Technology china and i graduate last year in Beijing University Of Technology.

I’m fun loving, personal, friendly, clean, caring and respectful of others. a non-smoker, don’t do drugs but i drink occasionally, am single and have no children. I go to church every Sunday. am presently on research work at Guam, but will be coming to the state for my master degree… I'll loved to call you but here is a remote area calls are very hard to go through, and i don’t want to waste much time.

I’m really interested in renting from you, please send me some picture of the room if you can because i will not be able to come over and check on it before renting.

I really want you to tell me more about yourself and if you have garage or parking space cos ill have my own car coming over. I will sign all necessary papers/Lease at the point of my arrival because there is no printer and scanner close to me. Please let me know the total payment of the place and the payment will be done via Certified Check. So i want you to feed me back with the following details so that i can ensure you are ready to accept the payment.

Below is the information needed to facilitate the mailing of the check.
* Full Name:
* Address, City, State, Zip Code:
* Cell and Home Phone Number:
* Month Rent:

Note: My Dad will issue out the payment for the deposit as soon as possible, with that you can hold on the place prior my arrival and payment will be shipped to your address. I’ll be waiting to read back from you with the information requested today.
Thanks for your Cooperation.

Shanina Jones

This warning on the Craigslist notes for avoiding fraud and scams comes closest to this one:

. Distant person offers a genuine-looking (but fake) cashier's check:
• You receive an email or text (examples below) offering to buy your item, pay for your services in advance, or rent your apartment, sight unseen and without meeting you in person.
• A cashier's check is offered for your sale item as a deposit for an apartment or for your services.
• Value of cashier's check often far exceeds your item—scammer offers to "trust" you, and asks you to wire the balance via money transfer service.
• Banks will cash fake checks AND THEN HOLD YOU RESPONSIBLE WHEN THE CHECK FAILS TO CLEAR, sometimes including criminal prosecution.
• Scams often pretend to involve a 3rd party (shipping agent, business associate, etc.).

My lesson learned here is not so much one of recognizing when I am likely being had, but one of thinking I could be smarter than the con artists. If my credit union had not been vigilant, had not refused to deposit the check where I might have thought it had gone through, I would be out almost one thousand dollars.

A just punishment for thinking I’m too damn smart.

This is the email I just sent to “Dalona.”

Good try, Dalona. Of course the check was bad, as I suspected it would be. Now, is the real Dalona Hylton from Independence part of your little scam – she seems to be the same woman in the picture you sent me. I googled the name, and found her. The resemblance is what made me think you might be for real for a while. But then the car delivery, the English syntax of a Nigerian prince – it all added up.

Hope you find some way to do good in the world. Maybe helping UNICEF kids?