My Story, Pt. 3: If It’s Too Good To Be True…

After being granted permission to work remotely from Hawaii, I spent the next few days in a state of bliss. And then the reality of the situation dawned on me: I was moving. In a few short months. Across the ocean. And I had a house to pack, a new rental home to find, two cats to prepare for entry into a rabies-free state (more on that later!), flights to book, moving services to research … aack!

The next few months were very busy ones, indeed. My first priority was getting my cats, Alice and Amy, vaccinated and tested for rabies — a detailed process requiring several months to complete — so they wouldn’t have to be quarantined for four months upon entering Hawaii.

My next task was to find a rental home — not an easy feat when you live 2,394 miles away. Plus I had a couple other factors working against me: (1) I had pets, one of whom refused to stay indoors; and (2) I wanted to try living without a car in Honolulu.

I dug through the rental listings on Craigslist Hawaii every day, looking for a place that allowed outdoor cats, was in a location I could walk to without too much difficulty, and was priced within my budget. Oh, and it also had to be in one of the neighborhoods I had liked during my last scouting trip. Um, sure, no problem!

Well, except that more than half the listings specifically stated “no pets.” And half of those did not allow them to go outside off-leash. And wouldn’t you know it: Many of the homes in the neighborhoods I liked were located on hills that required a long, hard hike to reach on foot. D’oh!

I was starting to lose hope that I would ever be able to find a place to live. And then I spotted a listing for a house that shocked me — in a good way. It was located in the upscale Kahala area, where rental homes are typically way beyond my budget ($3,000+ per month), so I was shocked to see that this listing was asking for only $1,200.

What’s the catch? I wondered. The photos showed a beautiful, well-kept home. It was located just a couple blocks from the beach. Pets were OK. Hmmm.

Maybe $1,200 referred to a weekly rent? I wondered. Yeah, that had to be it.

But just to be sure I wasn’t missing out on a ridiculously great deal, I emailed the owner to ask.

I soon got a reply from a “Mr. Philip,” who stipulated that he was looking for a “God-fearing” person who would take good care of the house while he was on a job assignment for four years in Buffalo, New York.

OK, I thought, so maybe this guy is one of those rich eccentrics, and he doesn’t care about making money off the rental. He just wants someone whom he can trust to live in the property while he’s far away in New York.

In his reply email, Mr. Philip had also asked me to tell him more about myself, and to fill out an attached rental application. I eagerly did so, hardly believing my good fortune in finding this listing.

The next day I received another email from Mr. Philip, telling me that he and his wife had discussed it, and had agreed to take me on as their tenant. They would send me the house keys via courier as soon as I had paid them the typical deposit of first and last month’s rent.

I was beside myself. I could already envision my friends and family visiting me in my beautiful new home — we would play in the pool, stroll a couple blocks to the beach…

Without giving it a second thought, I dashed off to Western Union to wire the deposit to Mr. and Mrs. Philip in Buffalo, New York. I was already mentally planning ahead: As soon as I got back home, I was going to book a flight back to Honolulu to go see my new house first-hand.

But when I returned from the Western Union office, I first decided to do a quick Web search on this Mr. Philip, just out of curiosity. I found only one brief mention of his name — apparently he and his wife were on a donor’s list for a hospital-related charity in Honolulu.

Then I took a look at the website of the courier service that Mr. Philip had told me he’d be using. He had emailed me a link to a site where I’d be able to track the delivery of the house keys. But when I saw the site, it looked surprisingly amateurish. I clicked around, trying to find the section where users could track their deliveries. I found no such function. In fact, the site didn’t appear to have very much information at all on it, although it did list a phone number at the very bottom of the homepage. With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I immediately did a Web search on the phone number.

I felt sick when I saw the search results. All of them were warnings of a scam operating out of the U.K. and Africa. The phone number I had entered was one of several that the scam artists used.

I immediately got on the phone with Western Union to see if there was any way I could put a stop on the money wire I had just sent. I was told there was, as long as the recipient hadn’t already picked up the deposit.

I held my breath while the phone rep checked on the status of the wire, mentally berating myself for being so gullible and allowing my emotions (namely greed) to cloud my judgment. Why on earth would I wire money to someone I knew only through a couple of emails? How could I be so stupid? I had ignored all the warning signs so I could continue believing what I wanted to believe. Never before had these words rung truer: If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

When the phone rep returned on the line, he told me that the money had not yet been picked up and he was able to cancel the wire. I was flooded with relief, realizing what a narrow escape I’d just had. I would never have guessed that I would fall victim to an online scam.

But I did. I had underestimated the power emotions can have over judgment, and the cunning of Internet scam artists.

I later discovered that the description, address, and photos of the Kahala home in the fictitious listing were copied directly from a legit real estate site, where the house was listed not for rent, but for sale.

The actual asking price? $2 million.