BOSTON (CBS) – It is a devastating lesson for Jennifer Marroquin, just before the holidays.
The young, working mother thought she was getting an apartment in Somerville for her and five-year-old daughter Angeli, who is deaf.
Instead, she lost hundreds of dollars to a scam the FBI is seeing all over the country.
“I was planning to give her a good Christmas,” Marroquin told the I-Team, while wiping away tears. “How do you sit down with your daughter and tell her you don’t have a house to go to anymore?”
Marroquin and her daughter are currently living at a shelter in Dorchester. The placement is only temporary, so there is an urgency to find an affordable place to live.
How To Help: Fundraiser for Jennifer and Angeli
In November, Marroquin spotted a listing on Apartments.com for a one-bedroom apartment on Hamlet Street in Somerville. The rent seemed like a great deal: only $800 per month. The photos (which she later learned had been plucked from an actual Zillow listing) also made it look like a good fit.
After inquiring, Marroquin received an email from the supposed owner, who told her she had worked for several years at a Cambridge pharmaceutical company, but had recently moved closer to family in North Dakota.
“I’m in need of a good and responsible tenant that can move into my apartment and take very good care of the property and maintain it in my absence,” the email from “Karen Castillo” said.
To secure the unit, Marroquin was informed she would need the first month’s rent and a security deposit, a total of $1,600. The supposed owner told Marroquin the entire transaction would be handled through Airbnb.
“Because she said it was Airbnb, I was thinking it seemed legitimate,” Marroquin expressed.
Specific email instructions arrived from what appeared to be an Airbnb address. Marroquin borrowed money from her boyfriend’s family to come up with the $1,600. She then loaded the amount onto a pre-paid Visa card, as instructed in the email.
Marroquin received a confirmation message the payment had been approved, along with a time she would be able to inspect the apartment.
However, “Karen Castillo” then sent another email that raised serious doubts in Marroquin’s head. The message said the supposed owner had received an offer from another tenant willing to pay six months of rent in advance. The email asked Marroquin if she would be willing to pay another one or two months of rent before moving in.
“I knew something was wrong,” she said.
The next call was to one Marroquin’s high school mentors.
“It was heartbreaking,” Zanny Alter, a counselor at Somerville High School, told the I-Team. “It was very upsetting on a lot of levels.”
Alter said she watched Marroquin overcome a lot of adversity to earn a diploma last summer, including raising a daughter with special needs (Angeli attends Beverly School for the Deaf).
After reviewing all of the communication, Alter said she was surprised at the level of sophistication in the scam.
“It looked like she was getting emails from Airbnb,” she explained. “I compared them to emails I’ve received. They looked exactly the same. So whoever was running this knew what they were doing. They have practiced this and it works.”
The FBI is seeing a lot of variations of the scam nationwide. Spokeswoman Kristen Setera told the I-Team that criminals use reputable platforms and then “spoof” or create similar emails to mimic the legitimate company’s service.
“They often provide emailed receipts or confirmations that seem to make it more legitimate from the victim’s perspective,” Setera said.
In Marroquin’s case, an email that appeared to come from Airbnb customer service was actually from a fake “consultant.com” address instead of the real “Airbnb.com.”
Setera said the FBI has also seen a drastic shift in methods to include buying prepaid cars instead of wiring money through a bank account, which makes the crime even tougher to track.
An Airbnb spokeswoman said it is essential that customers remain on the company’s secure platform to complete all payment transactions and avoid potential fraud. The company provided these tips to WBZ-TV and encouraged customers to report fake emails or web sites.
Apartments.com also provided tips on how to spot scams, including rent offered below market value, requests to wire money, and dramatic landlord stories.
“Apartments.com recognizes how upsetting these online scams can be for our renters and we have a team dedicated full-time to screening fraudulent listings and responding swiftly to customer complaints,” spokeswoman Caroline Nolan told WBZ.
As she continues looking for an apartment, Marroquin has already come across a similar fraudulent online listing. Luckily, she knew how to spot it this time.
The young mother is planning to enroll at Bunker Hill Community College in January to study to become a medical assistant. Right now, she is picking up extra holiday shifts at her retail job to earn back the $1,600 she lost.
Her high school counselor, Alter, also launched an online fundraiser to help her recover from the scam.
“This person not only messed with my money, but they messed with the time I can give my daughter,” Marroquin expressed. “I want to help prevent this from happening to someone else.”
Ryan Kath can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.