He goes by the name Donald Shaw, or Victor Mills. He’s a scammer with a Texas area code and an ever-changing email address, and he conducts housing scams of a type that has reached our good, clean Milwaukee.
The basic format involves grabbing a photo of a house from a real-estate website such as Zillow and posting a fake ad on Craigslist or another site, promising low, low rent, $200-$300 cheaper than require elsewhere. One attempted con from earlier this year involved a house at 2877 N. 72nd St., a cute Cape Cod owned and rented out by Milwaukee lawyer Aaron Kastens – who had no idea the joint had been listed illicitly by Mills on Craigslist for $700 a month.
When a Milwaukee Magazine editor inquired about the property, the following exchange took place over email:
MH I saw the ad for the 72nd st. property. Could I look at it soon?
VM VICTOR_MILLS13@AOL.COM: Thanks for your interest. The house is still available for rent, and we are looking for a responsible person/family to occupy and maintain the house. Myself and my wife just traveled to New York with Experience Mission. We will be away for about 4 years. Never mind if you see the For Realtor sign in front of the house. It has already been taken off the market. How long do you intend to stay and how soon do you intend to move in?
MH I’d be looking to move in any time between now and late May, and I’d be interested in a 12 month lease.
VM I hope you become the right tenant for us. You’ll be required to make a fully refundable part security deposit payment of $300 if we eventually decide to rent to you. I’ll FedEx the keys and documents of the house to your present address, and then you can move in at your most convenient time and pay up the balance … $400. I am not available to show the inside of the house to you at this moment, but you can go check out the house and the neighborhood from the outside.
MH I stopped by the house today and there was a woman inside. Is she house sitting? I’m not sending anyone $300 to rent an apartment sight unseen. This looks like a scam.
Victor Mills didn’t respond. While some rental scams are more ambitious, asking for both the first month’s rent up front and a security deposit, this one was relatively conservative.
HOW TO STAY SAFE
According to Jerad Albrecht, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, the agency hears about such rental scams occasionally but keeps no formal statistics on them. This summer, an informal review by the magazine identified two such scams out of approximately 500 house ads on Craigslist, listing for less than $1,200 a month.
To avoid pitfalls, Albrecht recommends dealing “locally and meeting face-to-face with the other party in a public space.” Don’t wire money to strangers, he says, and never rent a property sight unseen. Another handy way to avoid scams is to Google properties and see if they have been listed elsewhere for different prices. ◆