Scam rental

This image of a so-called available apartment rental was emailed to a local couple seeking housing. The Aspen-Pitkin Housing Authority posted the original ad for the unit on its website, and has since removed after a local couple shared information about its suspicious nature.

The Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority has tweaked its procedures regarding online postings of privately owned rentals after officials recently were alerted to what appeared to be a scam.

APCHA compliance manager Bethany Spitz said an advertisement for an apartment rental on the public housing agency’s website in early December was removed after a home-hunting couple pointed out some unusual email correspondence from the alleged property owner. APCHA staff now will spend more time cross-checking potential postings against local assessor’s office records and looking for other unusual traits associated with would-be ads, such as nonstandard internet addresses.

“We’re going to do the best we can before posting something externally,” Spitz said.

The reply to the couple’s inquiries came from a self-described “parish priest” living in London who wanted $1,900 for an upscale one-bedroom, two-bath apartment in Aspen, complete with laundry facilities, air conditioning, internet access, two covered parking spaces and other amenities. Photographs of the unit were sent to the couple and suggested a living space that likely would have fetched a lot more than $1,900 on the free market.

In addition, whoever replied to the couple said they wanted to send an attorney from North Carolina to Aspen to show the unit before completing the transaction. The sender of the messages also asked for one month’s rent to be deposited into a bank account before the supposed lawyer would depart for Aspen to show the space and execute a contract.

“My lawyer wants to be extremely sure that you are ready and capable of renting the apartment before he will engage himself in coming down to Aspen for the visit and signing of the contract,” the email says. “So my lawyer demands that the one-month rent should be deposit [sic] in account ($1,900) which will be refundable after termination of your contract if nothing is damaged in the apartment… .”

The email additionally asks that once the money is deposited into the attorney’s account, “You will send a copy to me in order to confirm a copy to my lawyer for his notification regarding the visit and once my lawyer receives a copy of the payment slip, he will contact you to confirm the visit appointment to you before he will come down to Aspen. …My lawyer decided to proceed this way become sometimes he have [sic] to travel this distance only to find out that the person or individual wasn’t there (an insincere person indeed).”

The email goes on to say that if the couple isn’t satisfied with the dwelling, the lawyer will reimburse the money before leaving Aspen. There is no mention of the lawyer’s name, but a bank name, routing number and account number are provided from the email sender, who is listed as “Rev. Andrew Campbell.”

The couple did not provide any money to the sender and promptly notified APCHA of the unusual request. Spitz said APCHA received three more advertisement requests in mid-December from other sources, and deemed them “interesting” enough not to post them.

“We appreciate being told about [unusual postings] and we’ll address them as they come up,” said Spitz. “It’s good for people to pay attention.”

APCHA has been using the online system for privately managed rentals for about a year, said Spitz, the agency’s first-ever compliance manager who has been on the job since July. APCHA’s former system was to place notices of private rentals on a bulletin board in its office, a system that depended on unit seekers to visit the office personally.

“We’re trying to drive traffic to the website instead of having people come into the office,” she said. The service is free, both for those who are posting ads or looking for housing.

APCHA will only place advertisements for properties that are located in the Roaring Fork Valley. The ads will remain online for 30 days or until the owner, manager or renter asks that it be removed.

Overall, she said, the year-old online system has been working well, Spitz said.

“I wouldn’t call [the suspicious notices] a huge problem at all. I’d call it an occasional hiccup,” she added.

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.