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Students report subletting scam

A University student recently fell victim to an e-mail scam, losing several thousand dollars after being deceived by a false subletting opportunity.

Second-year College student Shelina Merchant posted on Web sites such as HooHasIt.com and ongrounds.com because she was looking to sublet her apartment over the summer. She then received multiple e-mails from a woman who said she was studying abroad and interested in subletting the apartment.

According to Merchant, the woman sent her $4,340 in money orders, asking her to deduct the cost of the sublet and to send the remaining $3,660 to her travel agent in Atlanta. Merchant transferred this amount Feb. 19. She later received a notice that stated the money orders were actually counterfeit and the money she had transferred was lost from her bank account, resulting in a loss of thousands of dollars.

After this first incident, Merchant said she received an e-mail that "was nearly verbatim" from a different person who claimed to want to sublease the apartment. She was e-mailed multiple times by an alleged student from the United Kingdom. Many of the e-mails were demanding, forcefully reminding Merchant that she needed to transfer the money. One e-mail mentioned the Western Union money transfer again, stating "Please follow the Western Union information I gave you carefully."

She reported the incident to her local police in Richmond, the state attorney general's office and to the FBI via its fraud Web site.

Merchant said University police told her the scam was not technically a crime.

"There was no exchange of goods, and she never actually stayed in my apartment, and there was nothing they could really do," Merchant said.

University Police Sgt. Tracie Craner said she "does not have direct information" available about the case.

University Police Chief Michael Coleman said since the incident did not involve on-Grounds housing, it is out of his office's jurisdiction.

Even though the incident did not constitute a crime, Merchant said she was "disappointed" because she ended up losing the money.

Merchant is not the only student who was a target of e-mail scams. Her roommate, second-year College student Teodora Mihaylova, said she also received e-mails similar to Merchant's after posting a subletting advertisement on the Web. Certain portions of the e-mails seemed suspicious to Mihaylova.

"He hadn't read my advertisement correctly because I was looking for a female who wanted to sublet my room and he also said that I needed to contact his sponsor," Mihaylova said. "He was not precise and it was strange that he had a sponsor in the U.S. that would handle this situation."

In one e-mail, the alleged student stated he "would like to know the availability of the room/apartment," making the e-mail even more general, and thus applicable to many people who were in the same situation as Mihaylova and Merchant.

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