Multi-million dollar rental scheme that started overseas has ties to St. Francis, I-Team learns

Homes for rent
Posted at 5:27 AM, Nov 03, 2021

ST. FRANCIS — Law enforcement in our area is warning that anyone looking to rent a house, if you're not careful, could be a victim of an elaborate scheme that stretches across the country and the globe.

St. Francis police detective Zak Gilden told the I-Team about his case, which he first found out about from investigators in Georgia.

According to court documents, a group of people looking to rent a home found one on Facebook south of Atlanta in Griffin, Georgia.

They were promised a key to their place by a landlord as long as they sent "$2,459" via a Moneygram overnight to a man who they were told was an attorney.

"They filled out a lease online, sent it in, sent a money order for the first month's rent and a security deposit to a gentleman that actually lives in St. Francis, which is how we got involved in the first place," Detective Gilden explains.

They never got the key and never got their money back. In fact, Detective Gilden tells the I-Team the landlord the renters were communicating with didn't even exist and the man cashing the checks, while he is a real person and does live in St. Francis, is not an attorney.

"He was cashing the checks, but had no clue what they were for," Gilden said.

"What's the benefit to him? Did he get a cut of it or why would he do that?" the I-Team's Kristin Byrne asked.

"It kind of at appearance seems to be one of those romance scams where he thought you knew it was kind of his girlfriend," Gilden said.

And another layer of the case unfolds. Detective Gilden says the St. Francis man formed an online relationship with a woman in New York. She said she was doing some online business and needed help getting checks cashed.

"After he cashed them at these check cash places, he would go to Bitcoin kiosks and take the cash, put it into Bitcoin, and send to her, what he thought was her Bitcoin wallet," said Gilden.

From his investigation into this woman's email address, Detective Gilden learned this woman doesn't exist either. He also researched the email address used to correspond with those people trying to rent a home in Georgia. Turns out, those accounts were from overseas.

"The extent of this fraud is a lot more vast than I expected it to be," he said.

"I filed a search warrant with Google. Turns out that Google account is not at all operated in the United States. Most of it pings to the area of Lagos, Nigeria," said Gilden.

After reviewing three months' worth of emails, he came across what he believes is a multi-million dollar rental scheme, spanning several states, involving cryptocurrency.

"There were Craiglist ads for houses in Wisconsin, and in California, the state of Washington, Colorado, anywhere and everywhere," Gilden explained.

"They were just taking any house that was listed for sale, taking those photos off of Zillow or whatever housing website, then turning around and posting them on a Craigslist ad and saying that house was for rent," he said.

"Because you're finding the people behind this scheme are overseas, is there anything that your department can do?" TMJ4's Kristin Byrne asked Gilden.

"It's hard for a local department to get out to different states let alone getting out to Nigeria," he said.

As far as that St. Francis man is concerned, police decided not to recommend charges for his involvement, but Gilden says that can change if he starts cashing money orders again.

If you're looking for a place to rent, Gilden stresses never send money overnight to someone you don't know. Also, Google the address of the place and see if you find it for sale on other housing websites. It could have been for sale and taken off the market, but be cautious before you sign anything or send any money.

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