In a scam growing in size and dimension, would-be renters in Illinois and across the country are bumping into glossy ads on Craigslist that seem to answer their prayers.
"It was a beautiful home. And I'm thinking, 'Wow! $800 for this? This is beautiful!" Cassandra Johnson told NBC Chicago after she found a rental ad on Craigslist for a home that was both ideal in price and location.
But inside that LaSalle home, the story was a very different.
"It's not for rent," according to the homeowners.
Adam Bontz, his wife Angie and three daughters say the story began for them the day after Thanksgiving, when an unexpected knock at the door was the first sign of trouble.
"We had just put the Christmas tree up... I answered the door and she said, 'Are you Adam?"' And I said, 'Well, yes, I am.' And she said, 'Your house isn't for rent, is it?' And I said, 'No, unfortunately, it's not." And she said, "Do you have five minutes? I want to show you some emails.'"
The woman at the door was Cassandra Johnson, who had driven down to LaSalle from her home in Harvey with the hopes of seeing the home she had just paid an $800 down payment to rent.
"Something was eating at me to go to the door, because I saw this Christmas tree after being told just a few days before they're sending me the keys and the documents so we'd be able to get into the home," Johnson explained.
Johnson and the Bontzes soon figured out they were sucked into the middle of a scam.
Adam Bontz said a neighbor had already alerted him that his home was listed on Craigslist as a rental property, when in fact it was only for sale. Bontz said it was clear the scammers had cut and pasted his home listing and photos from a real estate website.
The details listed in the ad were all accurate, aside for the rental part.
The email messages Johnson received showed a name that was an exact match to the owner of the property in LaSalle. He explained that he was a missionary living in Spain who was given his overseas assignment without enough time to sell his home. The fact that he peppered his emails with religious references influenced Johnson.
"We also had a common ground, which was our faith. So I allowed someone to manipulate God, in order for me to get this house," she said.
Bontz said he thought the ads were harmlessly annoying until the day Johnson showed up, and he realized she'd been taken for $800.
He said he is frustrated that he alerted Craigslist at least eight times about the ad, but got no long-lasting fix or personal reply to his repeated warnings. The couple both say Johnson should not have fallen victim to a scam about which Craigslist had been repeatedly alerted.
Federal authorities and Craigslist are aware of the scam, which has surfaced in various iterations from Nigeria and within some U.S. cities. The Spain-Missionary angle appears to be a newer version.
In response to NBC Chicago's inquiry about the real estate rip-off con, Craigslist did not answer any specific questions, but emailed a link to a section of the site detailing ways users can protect themselves online.