LEWISTON — The Craigslist ad was for a roommate to share a home in Lewiston, convenient to downtown. It was $800 a month, month-to-month was OK, pets OK, plus a $500 deposit. The pictures looked promising.

I inquired. I received an email back asking me to fill out a rental application. It asked for a Social Security number, which should have been a flashing red flag. 

In my case, it was simply a Craigslist encoded email I responded to, not a Nigerian or South American email address. I was less than 10 days out from starting my new job in Lewiston, and finding a short-term rental was proving to be more difficult and more expensive than I have ever experienced in more than a dozen moves in my adult life. 

After submitting the application, another email asked me to wire a $200 application fee, which would go toward the $500 deposit. Red flag No. 2. I felt uneasy yet pressured to pull the trigger and ensure I had a place to live while I searched for a home to buy. 

The “landlord” used the name Kathy Castillo. Next, they wanted the $200 delivered through Cash App. Red flag No. 3. This web payment app only allows debit cards, not credit cards, which makes it almost impossible to get a refund from your bank or credit union. It is also not accredited by the Better Business Bureau and thousands of complaints have been registered against Cash App for myriad reasons.  

I sent it anyway out of utter desperation. I immediately felt something was very wrong. I should have followed my instincts. Later that day another email and text came asking for the remainder of the deposit and the first month’s rent, for a total of an additional $1,100. Alarm bells went off in my head. Finally, I got the message. 


I replied I needed a few days to gather the funds, as I had just paid my rent in Tennessee. That was a Thursday. I agreed to send the balance Tuesday. I started searching for Kathy Castillo in Maine. Two matches, none in Lewiston. I Googled the address of the house listed in the Craigslist ad and found a real estate listing from May 2021, showing the house had sold. I looked at the pictures and they were the exact same ones in the Craigslist ad.

Upon closer inspection, there was a watermark on the images from the local real estate firm. I searched the Androscoggin County Registry of Deeds website for the “rental” house’s address. Bingo! But the owner’s name was not listed as Kathy Castillo.  

I called the real estate firm listed on Zillow and got lucky. The agent I spoke with would contact the agent who sold the house and get back to me. Within 30 minutes I got the news. The owner had not put an ad on Craigslist and was not looking for a roommate. Neighbors had recently told the owner they had spotted her house on Craigslist and warned her. My heart skipped a beat. 

I later found out the owner had flagged the ad on Craigslist, indicating it was suspicious, only for it to appear and reappear a short time later. 

Imagine if I had shown up at the address the following Monday with my U-Haul in tow and knocked on the door? The owner would have had every right to call the police or pepper spray me, and I still would need a place to stay. I called my bank to try to get my money back, something I now know will not happen. 

Tuesday rolled around and I was dreading it. I knew the scammer would be contacting me for more money. How would I handle it? What would I say? By 11 a.m. I got a text, a casual greeting and how are you today? “Just message me when you send the money to Cash App. I have to go into some meetings.”   


My reply was to the point: “The jig is up. I know this is a scam. You don’t own the property and I’ve reported you to the police, the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission. You better make yourself scarce.”

I’m sure they got a good laugh. They simply replied, “How do you mean?” 

I may never see my $200, but I didn’t get duped further into the scam. I booked a room at the local extended-stay hotel, where I knew I would be safe and had a guaranteed reservation. 

This is only one of the rental scams out there, but they all run a similar pattern. The key is to recognize the red flags and protect yourself to avoid what happened to me or even worse. 

Brenda Fontaine, founder of the The Fontaine Family Group real estate firm in Auburn, and her daughter Crystal Fontaine Bergeron caution there are other scams they see in the area.

“Foreclosures are another problem (for potential renters),” Brenda Fontaine said, referring to empty houses going through the foreclosure process because the previous owner didn’t keep up the mortgage payments. “The previous owner collects the money and doesn’t pay the mortgage.” The renter is left holding the bag when the bank or some other official comes knocking at the door.


Rent-to-own homes are another segment of the real estate business thieves target. They too are frequently tied to home foreclosures. The Fontaines warn would-be renters to check the online database for deeds by the address in the city or county where you want to rent. That search will list the owner and date of the sale. You should also search public records for foreclosures. The Fontaines suggest you call the city or county if you need help locating documents. The staff is very helpful.


Craigslist is singled out by the Maine Attorney General’s Office as one of websites where rental scams are commonplace. But beware of Facebook Marketplace as well. Three recent examples from Texas and Kentucky were pointed out to me by a real estate agent. See the examples below. In each case, the poster uses the same name, which we blued out in the photos accompanying this story, and even has a Facebook page, which has little to no information or contact information listed. No addresses are listed for any of the three properties.

One from Texas reads: “1800 sq, ft., 3 bed, 2 bath renovated house for $700 a month, no down payment needed, bad credit no problem!” The median rent for a three-bedroom house in Abilene ranges from $1,200 to $1,800, according to zumper.com, so the $700 rent should be a red flag.

And the language used in two of the ads is surprisingly similar: “My Aunt is urgently looking for a family…” and “My Mom is urgently looking for a family…”

The Sun Journal could not confirm the ads are scams, but they have many of the red flags consumer advocates warn about. The point is, if it looks too good to be true, it likely is. Do your research and ask questions if warning bells go off.  

Cash App’s parent company, Block, formerly Square, is being investigated by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and several state attorneys general, regarding its Cash App service, according to an article posted by Bloomberg on March 4. 

The bureau has requested information from Block, including details on Cash App’s handling of “customer complaints and disputes,” according to the report. Block has said it is cooperating with all the parties, and the company added that it’s “not possible to reliably determine the potential liability” when it comes to the investigation. 

According to the Federal Trade Commission, complaints against Cash App were up 472% in a year, increasing from 735 complaints in 2019 to 4,204 in 2020. 

Ad from Facebook Marketplace. From FB Marketplace

Ad on Facebook Marketplace. From FB Marketplace

Ad from Facebook Marketplace. From FB Marketplace

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