Crime Blotter

Craigslist Community

Fertile Ground for Hucksters

Craigslist bills itself as an “online community.” Unfortunately, online communities are apparently no less prone to crooks than their brick-and-mortar brethren, as nine apartment hunters who were bilked out of rent deposits by a smooth-talking con artist masquerading as a rental agent have all discovered in recent weeks.

The victims had been lured by listings on the Web site for affordable apartments at two Upper East Side addresses: 57 East 95th Street and 329 East 92nd Street. “They meet the person and give [him] a down payment,” explained Inspector James Rogers, the 19th Precinct’s commanding officer. “There are nuances to the scenario, but that’s the gist of it. They don’t get the apartment, because the guy is not renting it. It emerged this week as a real problem.”

In an incident that occurred on Aug. 10 (but wasn’t reported to the police until Sept. 3), a 24-year-old California woman said that she’d found the East 95th Street apartment while shopping on Craigslist. She sent the apartment’s alleged rental agent two unsigned $1,400 checks—one for the first month’s rent, the other for the security deposit.

Her understanding was that she’d sign the checks upon receiving the keys to the apartment. But the perp—described as approximately six feet tall and in his late 20’s—signed the checks himself and then cashed them. The victim was unable to reach him on his cell phone.

In an Aug. 31 incident, a suspect fitting a similar description did give a set of keys for an apartment at 329 East 92nd Street to a 25-year-old client in exchange for a $3,000 rent check. However, when the victim tried to move in on Sept. 1, he discovered that the keys didn’t open the door. He contacted the building’s management company, but the company informed him that it only rents out apartments after completing tenant-background checks.

That victim, an East Seventh Street resident, wasn’t the only person that the suspect had rented the apartment to for the month of September. A 21-year-old East 119th Street resident told the police that after she found the listing on Craigslist, the con man—whom she described as a 26-year-old, six-foot-tall male with a European accent—fraudulently represented himself as an authorized agent to rent the apartment. She, too, was left empty-handed after the con man cashed two of her checks, worth a total of $3,600.

The police said that the victims wrote the checks without actually ever setting foot in the apartments—victims apparently not only of the Craigslist crook, but of the urge to live in Manhattan. Why would anyone fork over several thousand dollars for an apartment sight unseen? “Because it sounds like a good deal,” explained a police officer.

Stolen Classics

The works of John Steinbeck are making a comeback, if a recent incident is any indication. In a July 19 crime that was reported to the police on Sept. 9, a male entered Ursus Books and Prints Ltd. at 981 Madison Avenue and removed an autographed first edition of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, valued at $3,500. He then sold it to another rare book dealer in Boston; that dealer informed Ursus, which subsequently recovered the property. As despicable as the crime was, the thief apparently didn’t play favorites: He also stole a rare book by James Joyce, valued at $2,250, from the Boston book dealer and sold it to Ursus.

The suspect, described as a six-foot, 175-pound, 50-year-old male, was subsequently arrested by the Boston Police Department.

Paging Seymour Hersh

In another literary-related theft—or, more precisely, a case of literary identity theft—a 91-year-old East 88th Street resident issued a complaint to police on Sept. 11 that somebody had been swiping his subscription to The New Yorker.

The victim informed the cops that he was a devoted New Yorker reader—not one of those parvenus who only read the cartoons—whose subscription spanned the William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown and David Remnick eras (even though he couldn’t remember the magazine under Harold Ross’ sharpened pencil).

He added that after not receiving his favorite read for two or three months, he called the magazine’s 1-800 number and was told that the subscription’s address had been changed to 201 East 28th Street.

The nonagenarian assured the cops that he hadn’t moved, nor had he requested the change of address. Adding insult to injury, he’d been paying for his subscription while it was being shipped to a part of town that is, well, not quite New Yorker country.

Reading Glasses Amiss

Be it James Joyce or Art Spiegelman, those of a certain age will tell you that it all looks like gibberish if you’ve misplaced your reading glasses or, worse, had them stolen.

That’s the predicament a 58-year-old East 82nd Street resident found herself in at a Barnes & Noble on Sept. 2. The victim had placed her glasses on a table at the store’s 240 East 86th Street location as she momentarily stepped away to retrieve another book; she apparently made the mistake that many customers do, mistaking Barnes & Noble for her rec room.

When she returned, her spectacles were gone. And these weren’t any old generic over-the-counter reading glasses, but a pair of posh black Armani eyewear valued at $388.

Ralph Gardner can be reached at Crime Blotter