Cops: Aspen housing email scammers re-up efforts
October 29, 2016
An email scam involving the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority is likely being perpetrated by a sophisticated operator from Nigeria who has doubled down on the scheme in recent days, an Aspen police detective said Friday.
The city of Aspen first warned residents of the scam Monday, when people began to receive emails from "Zueva Nadiyna" of the housing authority informing them that an affordable housing unit was available.
However, the scammer attempted to nullify that warning Thursday by co-opting email addresses from an Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority employee and a local newspaper reporter and sending out emails in their names saying Nadiyna was indeed legitimate and working with the housing authority to rent affordable units, said Aspen police Detective Jeff Fain.
"I think we're dealing with someone who is fairly sophisticated," Fain said. "Because (sending emails from another person's address) is not easy to do."
The emails notifying people that an apartment was available and asking for personal details like phone numbers, addresses and the person's profession first surfaced Sunday and Monday, Fain said. They directed people interested to send between $2,000 and $3,800 worth of deposit money in the form of a money order or MoneyGram, and that bank transfers, credit cards and checks were not allowed, he said. The emails were sent to between 20 and 30 people, Fain said.
Another email sent Wednesday offers up a two-bedroom, two-bathroom townhome in the 5100 block of Owl Creek Road in Snowmass Village near biking, walking and cross-country skiing paths that includes heat, water and trash for $2,059 a month, according to the email provided by Fain to The Aspen Times. It asks prospective tenants to send payment "the next business day … so you don't lose your unit" to a post office box in Snowmass Village.
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The email is signed "Zueva Nadiyna," a "free agent working under Aspen Housing Authority." It also lists an Aspen-area phone number that allows callers to leave a message on a voicemail. The email was sent from firstname.lastname@example.org.
As it turns out, the post office box is used by Aspen Skiing Co.'s property-management division to collect rent checks from employee tenants who live in Skico-owned properties, Fain said. He said he initially thought two employees who have access to the post office box might be part of the scam. However, Fain said he's worked with the two men on an unrelated police case, has found them to be completely cooperative and doesn't think they have anything to do with it.
Fain said he doesn't think anyone at the post office is involved, either. The postmaster pulled all the mail from the post office box Thursday, but all of it was legitimate Skico correspondence.
Fain said he initially wasn't sure how the scammer planned to retrieve the deposit money.
But in a further twist, someone sent out an email Friday morning, ostensibly from a Skico employee, to all Skico employee tenants directing them not to send rent checks to the Snowmass Village post office box anymore, he said. Rather, they are supposed to send rent money via Western Union or MoneyGram to a woman in Bishop, California, Fain said.
The person behind the Zueva Nadiyna emails also directed a prospective renter who corresponded with Nadiyna to send deposit money via Western Union to the same woman in Bishop, he said.
That person also is more than likely behind an email sent Thursday from Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority management analyst Manny Fernandez's city of Aspen email address assuring prospective renters that Nadiyna is for real, Fain said.
"Please for those already making bookings with Zueva Nadiyna should proceed we just got a confirmation that she is working with us," the email states. "You can contact her for further inquiries at (the gmail address)."
Finally, that same individual likely sent out an email Thursday from an email address belonging to Aspen Daily News reporter Chad Abraham, who wrote a story about the scam in Tuesday's edition of that newspaper.
"Please note that we have reached the Aspen housing head quarters in snowmass village and we have confirmed that Zueva Nadiyna is currently working with the Aspen housing authority as a personal Agent (sic)," the email from chad@aspendailynews states. "Please ignore our previous warnings and work accordingly with her to book your units."
The email is signed, "Aspen Housing Authourity, Chad Abraham."
Abraham said Friday that he had no indication the Daily News' email had been hacked, though he alerted the newspaper's IT person.
"I don't want my email going out like that," he said.
Fain said an IT person from the city of Aspen confirmed that Fernandez's email hadn't been hacked. Rather, that email and others were likely "spoofed" by the person, which allows them to send an email that looks like it comes from someone else, Fain said.
The city IT person was able to confirm that the email, ostensibly from Fernandez, originated in Nigeria and was bounced through a proxy server in Bangladesh, he said.
Fain said he's been unable to find anyone who's actually sent the scammer money, though he pointed out that some people might be trying to rent Aspen housing from elsewhere in preparation for moving here, so victims could exist.
Mike Kosdrosky, Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority executive director, said Friday that the organization has posted a prominent warning about the scam on its website. In addition, officials have shut down the "Looking for Housing" section of the website under "Rentals" because they think the scammer might have been obtaining people's personal contact information from that area, he said.
"Whoever's behind it has re-upped their efforts to try and scam people," Kosdrosky said. "They're persistent little posers."
Jeff Hanle, Skico spokesman, called the situation "a little worrisome," but didn't know specifics about it Friday.