WELLFLEET — Gordon Kahn had spent an entire day searching online for an apartment for his daughter when he found a cute cottage on Craigslist.
The 14 interior and exterior photos of Unit 6 at 558 Craigville Beach Road in Centerville showed a sunny, well-kept place. The rent was reasonable: $1,500 a month for a one-bedroom. It looked perfect for Joanie Galloway-Kahn, who, at 20, was due to have a baby on Aug. 5. She had just left an abusive relationship in New Jersey. She needed shelter in a downtown area, as she can’t drive, and she needed it fast.
Kahn and his husband, Ed Galloway, of Wellfleet and New York, sprang into action. On May 14 they started an email exchange with one Matt Bless, who called himself the property manager. He answered their questions quickly and politely. On May 15, Kahn wired $3,500 for the first month’s rent and a $2,000 security deposit.
On May 27, Joanie and Ed arrived at the cottage with all of Joanie’s belongings. When Bless didn’t appear or answer their texts, Ed asked a man mowing the lawn if he could talk to the property manager. He brought Ed a phone. The woman on the other end of the line was blunt. “You’ve been scammed,” she told Ed.
Barnstable Sgt. Patrick Fallon, who they went to see immediately, was not surprised. Fallon said they are among dozens of victims who come into the station every year. People have lost thousands of dollars through similar online cons. In almost all cases, there is nothing the local cops can do. Fallon refers everyone to the FBI website IC3.gov, the internet crime complaint center.
The FBI records victims’ information to learn where the criminals are operating. Mostly, they are from abroad: Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia. Once the money has been wired or the check cashed, the money is gone forever, Fallon said. And home owners whose properties are used as bait also have little recourse. Fallon said you can drive yourself crazy trying to take down the photos, which are usually purloined from recent real estate ads. They just pop up again and again.
Wellfleet Police Chief Michael Hurley said the same rental cons are alive and well on the Outer Cape and have been for years.
A five-minute search by the Independent found one house on Rock Harbor Road in Orleans advertised as a romantic cottage for rent. Cross-referencing the address with assessing records, it was clear the house is owned by Laura Gill of Brewster, who immediately used a “red flag” option on Craigslist when informed of the scam. At the same time, the supposed owner responded to a reporter’s inquiry. They wanted a personal email so they could send more information.
The Independent also emailed questions referencing both properties as scams to Craigslist. Subsequently, Gill’s Rock Harbor Road cottage and the Craigville Beach unit disappeared from the website. But there’s little comfort in that.
Jonathan Scott of Provincetown said his home was used by Craigslist scammers to collect vacation rental money for two years. “It really only stopped because of Covid,” Scott said.
The worst moments, he said, were the six times when people showed up to enjoy their vacation home only to be ushered, angry and upset, to the police instead.
But what really angers Scott is that Craigslist has refused to do anything to help. Despite filing fraud complaints with Craigslist, the police, the attorney general’s office, the FBI, and U.S. Rep. Bill Keating’s office, Scott’s address kept popping up again and again, he said.
“We couldn’t get Craigslist to call us back,” he said. “We filed complaints with the FBI and heard nothing. It was like a black hole.
“I totally blame Craigslist 100 percent,” Scott continued. “They could have taken it down. We might not be able to control what people do in Somalia or Russia or Guatemala, but we can control Craigslist. That’s the horror of America, that you have this crime going on right before your eyes and no one does anything.”
Calls and emails to Craigslist from the Independent elicited no response.
In 2018, after years of protests that the online platform enabled human trafficking, Craigslist removed its “personals.”
Craigslist does state at the bottom of each post, in tiny letters, “Avoid scams, deal locally! DO NOT wire funds (e.g. Western Union or buy/rent sight unseen).”
But many people might not notice that warning below the professional-looking real estate photos.
“The scam was awful,” Joanie Galloway-Kahn said. “My dad means really well. He was just frantic. My poor dad was so busy. He had so much to do to help me that he didn’t see the red flags.”