Roommate Background Checks

We’ve all done our share of Google background checks, especially after meeting a new friend, new crush or potential job lead. Now, in a plot twist that reads like a 21st century Single White Female, the search engine has helped one woman bust a serial scammer who became her new roommate.

The Oregon Statesman-Journal reports that a woman accused of befriending people throughout the state of Oregon, then stealing their cash or running up huge charges on their credit cards, has been nabbed in Los Angeles.

This happened after her new roommate – the tipster – called the LAPD and said that she and the scammer had met three weeks prior and become instant BFFs. However, after noticing that something seemed off about her new housemate’s descriptions of her background, the tipster called the cops. It turns out that the 24-year-old suspect had been scamming people for the past three years – and even stolen a car from her own sister.

I’ve done my share of roommate and/or tenant background checks – below are my tips to ensure that using Craigslist doesn’t lead to parting with cash.

1. Don’t rely on the credit check

Credit checks can give you helpful information that can help gauge a potential roommate or tenant’s financial history, income and ability to pay. But a credit check is NOT the same thing as a character check – and many scammers appear to have decent credit history because they keep multiple cards open with just the minimum balance paid – or because they have stolen multiple identities.

2. Check social security numbers

A private investigator can run a check on a subject’s social security number, which can contain a wealth of information. The social security number can, among other things, ensure that you are checking out the right person – and that the potential tenant isn’t using a dead guy’s identity (this happens more often than you might think).

3. Check address history

A complete address history is essential when looking for someone to share your space. Pay especially close attention if the subject is older than his or her early twenties and gives a parent’s or close relative’s address as their only point of contact- they could be omitting unpaid landlord and friends. Address history should also include liens on properties, lawsuits related to the address, evictions and other names linked to accounts. Which brings me to my final point:

4. ALWAYS make phone calls

There is no substitute for picking up the phone to call references – not just the ones that the subject provides, but anyone else who may have information about a candidates history. A good investigator can provide names and telephone numbers of former and current neighbors and colleagues to help get the complete story.


Beware Holiday Charity Scams

‘Tis the season of giving. . . but from Santa skimming the Salvation Army pot to Twitter appeals for fake flood victim relief, the holidays often bring out criminals who definitely believe that it is better to receive than give. After dealing with three charity scam cases in the past month, I thought this would be a good time for a refresher course on how to figure out if a charity is legit. So, before you pull out your wallet, check out these six tips.

1. Call the IRS.

Most tax-exempt organizations are required to file an annual return –  normally some variation of Form 990, with the IRS. Ask for literature from the charity, and check out the mission statement, board of directors and financial statements.

If the form isn’t available on the website, request a copy. Charities, except for churches and public charities whose annual gross receipts are less than $5,000, are also required to make form 501 (c) (3), which verifies their federal tax exempt status, available to the public.

When all else fails, sometimes it’s best to go straight to the source and call the IRS.

Yes, I was on hold for 45 minutes yesterday, but I was able to verify that the children’s organization I was checking out did NOT have federal nonprofit status. So the PayPal button on the ‘fundraiser’ bit of the website was most likely donating straight to the site owner’s shoe fund.

2. Check with watchdog groups.

Groups like the Better Business Bureau and CharityWatch have tips for giving wisely, and services that allow you to find legitimate charities. The CharityWatch Charity rating guide advises that legitimate charities have at least 60% of charitable donations going to program services.

More than 40% earmarked for administrative fees is often a red flag.

3. Beware of sound-alike names.

Many charities – especially those that pop up after natural disasters – mimic the names of reputable ones, and in at least one case flood victims were duped by scammers impersonating actual FEMA officers.

I never give out bank information, either over the phone or in person, to someone soliciting a donation. Instead, I ask the charity to email me information, or send it to my PO Box (more on this later).

4. Don’t be fooled by a figurehead.

Don’t let the fact that a charity is trendy, or everyone else on your Christmas card list is doing it, pressure you into not asking questions. Remember: This is how Madoff and Enron happened!

Fraud occurs at every level: The New York Times reports that a Jewish community leader was charged with stealing $7 million from one of the city’s most influential social service organizations.

5. Don’t be pressured into ’embedded giving’.

I first noticed this phenomenon when buying toilet paper at Whole Foods. At the checkout, right before I swipe my card I’m asked if I want to save the whales or stop genocide. At Petco, they phrase the appeal in a way in which it is almost literally impossible to say ‘no’: Will I give a dollar to help save a homeless pet?

I’ve had my weak moments, but since so-called ’embedded giving’ is often very hard to track, customers may be better off checking ‘no’ at the counter and sending a donation to a reputable pet charity or shelter instead.

6. Remember the difference between ‘non-profit’, ‘tax exempt’ and ‘tax deductible’.

A company can file with the California Secretary of State and be listed as a ‘non-profit’ corporation, but this has nothing to do with the charity’s federal tax exempt status. To find out if a company can legally take donations, it’s worth checking with the IRS.

And remember, some legitimate tax exempt groups that are politically active or involved in lobbying cannot receive tax deductible donations.


Scam of the Day:

I’ve been exposed to a lot of medical fraud cases lately. There are the women whose children are almost kidnapped by crazy ladies pretending to be pregnant, worker’s comp cases in which claimants fake injury, and even people who fake cancer in order to get funds from friends and relatives. I always wonder: In these elaborate stories, doesn’t anyone along the way demand to see medical evidence? Today in a fit of random Googling, I uncovered, a site where you can order ‘gag’ ultrasounds, medical and pregnancy tests, and even DNA results. The ultrasounds look VERY real; you can specify age of the ‘fetus’,  black and white or color, hospital, clinic, date of exam and even father’s name. Apparently these are meant to be gag gifts, but seriously, how is this funny? I can’t see the humor in springing a fake pregnancy test or ‘silicone twin fake pregnancy belly’ on an unsuspecting mom or boyfriend. Or saying ‘look, this test confirms that I have cancer–just kidding!’ The site asks you to tick a box saying you won’t use the material for ‘fraudulent purposes’, and the disclaimer reads (in part):

It is designed as a novelty/gag device. Be sure your “mark” has a sense of humor before unleashing this product upon them!We again urge CAUTION when using gags which have the potential of causing emotional harm (as almost any gag or practical joke does). KNOW YOUR VICTIM.

Whatever. Maybe I’ve just been watching too much Investigation Discovery, but certain items on the site seem sinister – and even potentially dangerous. Thoughts?

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