It was a week before my birthday, and like any good Leo, I reasonably expected to have the most fabulous birthday ever. Two nights at my favorite campground in upstate New York? Check. All that was missing was a few nights in New York City amidst the hot August madness that would swallow me whole and sweat me out until I was ready to pound the pavement out of my consciousness by retreating to the stillness of the woods. My favorite patch of woods – situated equally between a waterfall and a lake so clear that the last time we visited my traveling companion had named it “Camp Crystal Lake” – which stuck until she remembered that was the name of the place in all those ‘Friday the 13th’ movies. Scary hockey masked Jasons be damned, I liked the name, until dusk fell and darkness wrapped itself around the trees and animals no more terrifying than squirrels managed to make their footfalls sound realistically like humans – probably humans with large knives and aforementioned hockey masks – and so this patch of heaven was renamed Pebble Beach.
In my fantasy this year we would spend a few pre-birthday nights in the city before heading up to Pebble Beach. We would shop and stroll through Central Park, fill our eyes up to the brim with gallery-hung art, visit friends I rarely see, indulge in over-priced meals and end the day on some pillowtop mattress in a hotel room with a killer view of the city. Sounds perfect – just like a Lioness imagines her birthday week will be (and yes I said birthday week – because one day of being the rightful center of attention is just not enough for most of us Leos.) Fittingly – my original vision of this New York adventure included seeing the “Lion King” on Broadway – until I actually looked up the prices for this show – which had led me to two realizations: the first was that shows on broadway are ridiculously fucking expensive and second (though related) was that that was why unemployed ex-academics like me don’t go to shows on broadway. What I had chanted so proudly back in the fall was now more of a sad admission: we are the 99%. (sigh).
So fine, scratch the show, I wandered off into the internet to find my fabulous hotel room – pillowtop mattress and all. As I started plugging in dates and scrolling through the results my two above realizations set in again. I am not the 1% – and that was about the chance I had of finding a hotel I could afford.
But fear not – for there was Craigslist! And there in the vacation rentals section I found the most beautiful two bedroom apartment right in midtown available for the really reasonable rate of 150 a night. Note: in literature this ‘really reasonable rate’ would be what we call foreshadowing. But let me not get ahead of myself.
The apartment was gorgeous – I mean, there was a Tree in the living room. There were two bedrooms. The kitchen – all stainless. And the dining room that overlooked central park? Forget overpriced restaurants I could host a dinner party for my NY friends at my very own temporary apartment! I emailed the owner right away – and yes, it was available for the dates I needed. Great. And then I got a little nervous – I mean, this deal looked to good to be true and anyway, how did the whole renting-through-Craiglist thing work? I emailed the owner – his name was Martin Bullock – but he signed his email as Martin Bull (remember what I said about foreshadowing?) – and asked him straight out: was this legit? Were these pictures (and I provided the link to the ad he had put up) ones of the same apartment that I would rent? And how would I pay? And how would I know I wouldn’t get screwed over? I said I knew I was being overly cautious but I hoped a man of his stature (as he surely must be to own such an amazing apartment) would understand my concerns – and I assured him that I was a responsible adult just looking for a nice place in the city for a few nights.
He wrote back right away and said of course he understood my concerns, that yes those were the pictures of the correct apartment, and that he was a 40 year old man (with grown children) who had been renting this apartment for a decade and had never had a problem, as his reputation would attest. Okay, that’s what I read from his message. What he actually wrote (unedited except for my italics) was: “I’m a 40 man with two grown up children, I have also got my reputation to protect. I have being into my agent stuff for about 10 years now and never got myself stained. I will send you the receipt immediately you have the payment sent to the owner of the property as i will be the one to receive the balance of the payment from you on your arrival when i will be handling over the keys to you for check in.Once your confirm your booking Payment, your reservation is guarantee for the choosing date, you will receive a Receipt to confirm,I understand what you are trying to figure out on here and i can assure you that you are on the safer side booking with us.Because we have help so many people book for an online reservation.”
I for one was relieved – yeah, he gets it! My traveling companion – not so much. And I hadn’t even told her that he wanted me to wire money to him through Western Union – which certainly seemed reasonable. Plus he sent me a very official looking contract, complete with a signature that looked like it might have said “Martin Bull” or maybe “Steve Johnson” – but whatever – the contract had one of those multipointed star shaped seals on it – like, how much more official can you get?
“Look at his English Kaila,” my friend said, “this is a scam”. Now, this struck me as a little racist – what, someone who speaks English as a second language can’t rent me an awesome apartment at an incredible price? I mean – he is a “40 man” as he said after all.
But no, my paranoid friend insisted that I get his phone number and actually speak to him. So, fine. I asked him for his number and he sent it to me, no problem, and the next day my friend called the number and received a message that the “Magic Jack number” that she was trying to reach was unavailable. So she googled Magic Jack. This was not good. Especially since the first thing that came up was some article about how people in foreign countries could use Magic Jack to generate an American phone number. Great, so on top of being totally racist we were now xenophobes as well? I still wasn’t convinced. So she googled the actual number he gave and this came up (it’s a fraud alert scam about someone named Nelson Davies who was renting a vacation property in North Carolina – and it included the contract he sent to the person he attempted to scam). “Give me the computer” – I said – and I looked at the contract Nelson sent out in North Carolina and there I saw it. The exact Contract Martin Bull had sent to me – down to the same ambigious name scribbled in the ‘owners’ section.
And I was pissed. I was pissed because this fabulous apartment would not be mine for the weekend (in fact, as I later found in my obsessive googling of “craigslist vaction rental scams” that the apartment which was photographed was likely in some other part of the world – or lifted from the pages of Architectural Digest). I was pissed because there was someone – or maybe many people as it turns out – that prayed on those who didn’t have a lot of money (I mean who else is going to look at Craigslist for a vacation rental?). I was pissed because maybe the websites I thought were racist and xenophobic might have been – at least a little bit – right. And mostly I was pissed because I fell for it.
Martin continued to email me, and I continually emailed him back and asked him to meet me at the apartment that very afternoon when I would give him cash. His emails back always failed to respond to that request. Finally after an insane amount of time spent googling these scams I wrote him a very nasty email. I was mad – and I got mean. I called him a thief. I called him a liar. I said that he preyed on those without a lot of money – and that I had found him out – as well as his other aliases and that I had reported him to the FBI (which I had). I told him that he had invited generations of karmic retribution onto his family. I ended my email by saying that his grandchildren would curse his name.
He responded right away. He just needed my cell phone number so he could text me the ‘booking code’. He’ll be waiting a long time. As for NY, I decided to go upstate all the way – no days in the city of liars and cheats and scammers. I leave tomorrow for wooded bliss. And for all you would be thiefs out there – I’ve got a house sitter – so don’t even think about it.