Ryan Chartrand

Bruce Jones needed someone to sublease his mobile home for the summer and following year. He put up an ad on the Cal Poly Housing Web site and received a reply within days. Not long after, he found himself thousands of dollars in debt.

A scam artist, using the name Julia Williams in particular, has targeted several students like Jones, a civil engineering junior, through the housing Web site. Claiming to be from Africa or England, the impostor sends over a sum of money in traveler’s checks that is more than what the student is asking for – as somewhat of a down payment – but backs out at the last minute and requests a refund.

In Jones’s case, the person claiming to be Williams told him a week later that she wouldn’t be able to sublease after all, but he figured he still had enough time to find a different renter.

“She said she couldn’t make it,” Jones said. “Something about her grandma being sick.”

Jones hadn’t waited for the traveler’s checks to go through, but assumed they would. And without a second thought, he wired nearly $3,000 of his own money to who he believed was Julia Williams, only to find out soon after that the checks had bounced and he was in debt – with Williams nowhere to be found.

Unfortunately, Jones isn’t alone. Several students have become victims of fraud in their attempts to sublease their San Luis Obispo residences.

The police have received several reports of such fraud in the last few months, said Lt. Chris Staley of the San Luis Obispo Police Department (SLOPD).

“We realized there was a trend with this whole thing,” Staley said. In police briefings, such cases became more prevalent and officers pointed out that they had recently dealt with similar cases.

Most cases deal with an impostor using the Williams alias who asks to have the money wired back through Western Union to an account in Oklahoma. The fraudster typically sends a total of $3,800 split between four checks of $950 each, which Staley believes was done intentionally to make the amount under $1,000.

SLOPD Detective Scott Cramer said Western Union is typically involved in fraud cases because it is “not very traceable.”

“A lot of this money is going overseas,” he said, adding that the same scenario occurs when people try to sell items, such as cars, online.

Staley said the SLOPD contacted the agencies in Oklahoma, but haven’t found any leads yet. A lot of the information has also been turned over to postal inspectors as well. The police possess the envelopes in which the money was sent to the students, and though some are marked as having come from Africa, Staley is skeptical about the validity of that as well.

“We have limited follow-up we can do,” he said of the small police department. “But whoever it is, (they are) doing it repeatedly.”

Staley doesn’t believe, however, that the impostor is targeting any specific neighborhood or apartment complex. He said the reports of such an incident have come from all over the city and “the majority (of students) have figured it out when they try to cash the traveler’s checks.”

As for Jones, he is trying to pick up the pieces again.

He can’t open a checking account yet and said that he has to cash in his paychecks through his employer’s bank and eventually pay everything back.

“(I didn’t feel) too hot about it,” he said. “I’ll still be able to eat, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Since the incidents, the housing Web site has posted a warning to alert students and landlords of the scam. Students who find themselves in this situation are advised not only to wait for the checks to go through, but to also contact the SLOPD if a scam is attempted.

“Always be leery of anyone who’s wanting to send you more money than what you’re asking for,” Staley said. “I would be very suspicious of it, especially if they want you to return money to them.”

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