Off-campus housing scam catches students off guard

A nationwide renting scam dubbed the ‘419 scam’ for reasons unrelated to the local area code, has recently affected one University student. The student had posted on the University’s Online Off-Campus Housing Directory that she was looking for a roommate. She included her contact information and described the house and was contacted in early January regarding the availability. Andy Alt, assistant dean of students, said this scam revolves around ‘foreign students’ and the manipulation of the rental situation. ‘The basic premise of the scam is that a person from overseas inquires about the apartment, sends money as a deposit but claims to have sent too much, and asks the person to cash the check and send an amount back to the person overseas,’ Alt said. As advised by her lawyer, the University student has requested to remain anonymous for the purposes of this article. ‘[The contact] was from a girl named Linda Bergin, who was 26 years old and coming here from England to do a co-op with the school,’ she said. ‘She said she would be here in mid-February so we stayed in contact for the next month.’ The student was then contacted by Bergin’s stepfather, who said he would be sending a check for the rent. He had claimed it would be sent via UPS through his business partner in the United States and would need to know as soon as it was received. ‘I let him know as soon as I received it and I told him it was more than we had talked about,’ the University student said. ‘After that, I never heard back from him, so I deposited the check and it ended up being fraud.” The number ‘419’ in this case is a reference to the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud, where the scam originated. Alt said this scam is wide-spread across the nation and the Off-Campus Housing Directory tries to notify students of the possibility. ‘We had included a warning and disclaimer on our site before a person submitted their available apartment for rent or sublet,’ Alt said. ‘Our office was aware of this type of scam and did our best to inform people about the potential scam and to report anything that seems suspicious.’ The student talked with her bank and ended up having to freeze her account. They advised her to go to the police station and file a police report. In addition, she hired an attorney and worked with him. He, however, told her she was doing everything she could. Most recently, she met with Alt to discuss the disclaimer on the Web site and the possibility of it becoming more visible.’ ‘ ‘For something that serious, I think it should be big and bold enough for people to see,’ she said. ‘What was there was very small, and it didn’t catch my eye so I didn’t see it.’ Alt said the Off-Campus Housing Directory is much more effective than any alternative, such as posting flyers on bulletin boards across campus. It is used to serve as a central location for students to find a subleaser or find a place to live, he said. This was not the first time a similar scam was attempted within the area, however. ‘Other local landlords have had experiences similar to this, but those landlords more quickly recognized the scam, and it didn’t escalate to the level that was apparently experienced here,’ Alt said. ‘It is a terrible situation that a person has to deal with. To my knowledge it does not happen regularly around here, or at least people recognize the scam and do not engage in correspondence.” The University student said she never suspected the possibility of a scam. ‘I guess I am just too naive and I trust too many people, but everything seemed legitimate considering I talked to ‘her’ for over a month too,’ she said. ‘Even my roommates talked to ‘her’ so everything seemed to make sense.’