Business & Tech

Sean P. Murphy | The Fine Print

Ripped off by phantom rentals on Craigslist

Jonathan Scott says would-be renters showed up at his home in Provincetown four times last year.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Jonathan Scott says would-be renters showed up at his home in Provincetown four times last year.

For almost a year, a parade of would-be vacationers has arrived at the front door of a lovely two-family house in Provincetown. They say they have come to pick up the keys to the first-floor apartment they rented online.

But the owners of the house have never put the first-floor apartment up for rent, and they have become so wary of strangers insisting otherwise that they have taped a sharply worded note to the front door. It is addressed to “Craigslist Renters.”

“You have been scammed,” the note says, the words underlined twice for emphasis. “You have lost all your money. This home is not for rent.”


The note advises those who have been duped to go immediately to the police to report the fraud.

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“We are sorry,” the note concludes. “But Craigslist is at fault.”

The owners of the house recognize that a scam artist — or ring — has seized on their address as a lucrative lure to the unsuspecting.

But they are most angry at Craigslist, one of the Internet’s oldest and most successful companies. Ads for the first-floor apartment keep popping up there, no matter how many times the owners have flagged them as fraudulent.

“There are scammers everywhere and they are to be condemned,” said Jonathan Scott, who owns the house with his husband, Mike McGuill. “But what Craigslist is doing is aiding and abetting them openly, blatantly, and with impunity. That’s the real problem.”


Scott and McGuill told me they have been trying to get Craigslist to take some responsibility for stopping the nightmare they have been living since the first group of “renters” showed up at the house during the July 4th weekend last year.

A bewildered McGuill watched from the porch as a car pulled up, and a group of men piled out and bounded up the stairs, obviously eager to begin enjoying summer fun in a premier vacation spot long popular with the LGBT community.

McGuill told them there had been some kind of mistake. “Where did you hear about a rental?” he asked, as the group suddenly grew silent.

One of them pulled up a Craigslist ad on his phone: “2br — 1000ft — Luxury Apartment Provincetown.” It showed an array of attractive photos of the first-floor apartment (“nice living room with wood floors, great kitchen with island”), which McGuill recognized as the pictures posted legitimately on a real estate website when the house was for sale six years ago. (McGuill and Scott have a longtime tenant on the first floor and have never rented the apartment on a weekly or monthly basis.)

The photos had apparently been poached by the scammers.


The group of men on the porch told McGuill they had paid $1,500 in advance by wire transfer to the “owner.”

“They were so upset,” McGuill said. “I felt really bad for them.”

Three weeks later, it happened again. And then a month later, another group appeared at the top of the stairs. In all, McGuill and Scott turned away four groups last year.

So far this year, no one has arrived with luggage, but twice this month people have stopped by the house to inquire about a rental after seeing an ad on Craigslist.

Scams of this sort abound around the world. In Provincetown, police have taken 28 reports from distraught victims since 2016, almost all of whom cited Craigslist, town officials told me.

Plenty of others have probably been scammed, but haven’t reported it, they said. It doesn’t take much to run this particular kind of scam. Anyone can post a listing on Craigslist and await responses.

You don’t need to reveal your identity to Craigslist and you don’t need to pay for a listing in the vast majority of cases. (Craigslist says on its website it charges for job postings in selected areas, brokered apartments in the New York City area, automobile and furniture sales by dealers, and a few other categories.)

You just write something (and maybe add photos) and leave an e-mail address for interested parties to contact you.

To state the obvious: Never send money directly to anyone without recourse for getting it back (by wire, for example) based on something you saw on Craigslist or anywhere else on the Internet. Getting you to do so is how scammers make a living. Paying by credit card is a safer way, because most credit card companies will back you up in a dispute.

McGuill, a veterinarian, and Scott, founder and CEO of Victory Programs, a Boston-based social services organization, have been unable to get Craigslist’s attention.

They have repeatedly flagged the listing as fraudulent, filed fraud reports, and complained in e-mails to the company.

They have never received a word in response from Craigslist.

“Trying to contact a live person or customer service at Craigslist is absolutely impossible,” said Scott. “It’s the black hole on the Internet.”

Peter M. Zollman, a Florida-based national consultant on online classified ad companies, said he was appalled by what he said was Craigslist’s callous treatment of McGuill and Scott.

“Craigslist should block any future ads having to do with that particular address,” he told me. “It should do it immediately.”

I found a telephone number for the San Francisco-based company, which pioneered online classified ads in the 1990s and remains one of the most frequently visited online marketplaces, with tens of millions of users self-publishing listings monthly.

I was advised by a recording to e-mail my request to an address set up specifically for press inquiries. I did so for four straight days. Never heard anything back.

Craigslist keeps its costs low by operating a bare bones website that looks like it has never been updated, and keeping staff to a minimum.

“Craigslist doesn’t put a lot of time or effort in combating fraud and abuse,” said Zollman.

But maybe it should.

Scott said his first-floor apartment has a longtime tenant.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Scott said his first-floor apartment has a longtime tenant.

.  .  .

And here’s an update from an earlier column.

Bernie and Dolly Wax, the Brookline couple marooned last December in Los Angeles by Norwegian Cruise Line, have returned from a free “dream” trip to make up for the nightmare they endured at the hands of the cruise line.

“We had a lovely pampered time” on the cruise to Bermuda, Bernie reported to me last week, six months after his plight was featured in this column.

Wax, 87, and Dolly, 85, had planned their West Coast cruise as one last great adventure, a way to celebrate, in style, their 64 years together in the face of mounting health issues.

But when they arrived at the terminal their luggage was quickly taken from them for transport onto the ship — with their passports inside.

When they reached the registration desk, a cruise line representative told the Waxes to wait while someone searched for their luggage. They waited for three hours before being abandoned on the dock as the ship sailed away.

At first, Norwegian blamed the Waxes for missing the boat and refused to refund the $2,300 cost of the cruise or expenses they incurred as a result of being left behind.

But readers responded to the column with such stinging criticism of Norwegian that the company within hours of publication made a full refund and pledged to book the Waxes on a “dream” cruise.

It’s nice to know even large corporations can be shamed into doing the right thing.

Norwegian Cruise Line made good to Bernie and Dolly Wax of Brookline after their previous nightmare excursion.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Norwegian Cruise Line made good to Bernie and Dolly Wax of Brookline after their previous nightmare excursion.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.