Graduate student defrauded online

A person claiming to own a unit in a popular apartment complex fraudulently advertised an apartment on a housing website in an attempt to get payment from a prospective GW graduate student, according to a University Police crime alert.

On or around Aug. 1, the person claiming to own a Columbia Plaza unit advertised on HotPads.com, an apartment locator website, and tried to get advanced payment for a deposit and rent from the student.

The person posting the advertisement had no unit to offer and was attempting to defraud the student, according to the alert issued Aug. 6.

“Unfortunately, this type of Internet scam is common across the country for anyone,” said University spokeswoman Michelle Sherrard. “In this case, it happened to be a GW graduate student. Columbia Plaza management reported the incident to GW, [and] they have told us they reported the incident to the FBI.”

Columbia Plaza’s management didn’t return requests for comment, but the Crime Alert urged prospective residents to contact the facility directly when seeking to rent apartments.

When asked about the incident, HotPads Chief Executive and Founder Douglas Pope said this type of fraud is common on the Internet.

“We do our best to inform our users on how to avoid fraud and weed out scam listings, but it is a difficult problem for us and all similar websites,” Pope said.

According to the 2009 Internet Crime Report – an annual report put out by the Internet Crime Complaint Center – roughly 132 out of 1,000 people were victims of Internet fraud in D.C. last year. Additionally, roughly 117 out of 1,000 people were deemed perpetrators of online fraud in D.C. in 2009. According to the report, these numbers were based on Census figures.

The report also stated the second most reported complaint of Internet fraud is “Advance Fee Fraud” – a fake advertisement on a website that seeks an advance fee payment for a property, the same type of fraud the GW graduate student fell victim to.

HotPads, which uses a map-based search, encourages users to “post information about available homes for sale, apartments, rental houses, sublets, vacation houses, and roommate opportunities,” according to its website.

Last spring, GW business school students paired with HotPads for a class project which aimed to make the off-campus housing search easier.

George Mucibabici, a recent graduate of the business school, worked on the HotPads team, and said he faults the student who fell victim to the scam, rather than the website.

“I did hear about the recent HotPads.com incident,” Mucibabici said in an e-mail. “I feel it’s a bit foolish on behalf of the student to not have done his [or] her research on the building to see if it was a leasing property or apartment condos prior to paying any advance rent to some random person online,” he said.

The 5-year-old company – which is based out of D.C. – has already built portals for 450 universities nationwide as of last spring, and is beginning to collaborate with other D.C.-area colleges, though the class project didn’t result in a portal for GW.

Despite the simplicity of navigating the website, an open online community such as HotPads is easily subject to fraudulent crimes and abuse.

On its website, HotPads states, “HotPads is in no way liable for scams. It is the responsibility of users of HotPads to protect themselves and others within the HotPads community by reporting scam listings.”

HotPads warns that common themes found in housing cons include unreasonably low rent for the area, an inability to show the home in question and faulty contact info.

According to the UPD Crime Alert, real estate scammers may use a broker’s real name to create a fake e-mail for transactions.

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