In 2017, Flagstaff had a population of over 70,000 people, and it has continued to grow. The majority of this population growth comes from the influx of students the city sees annually, and these new residents are typically expected to find housing on or near campus. Unfortunately, most of the housing available on campus is not offered to upperclassmen, leaving a large portion of the population to find housing on their own. Because of the lack of housing for upperclassmen and the desperation to find an affordable place to live, students have been falling prey to elaborate housing scams every year.
It was the end of March 2018 when former NAU student Kelsey Becker came across a promising housing ad on Craigslist. The post was for a four-bedroom, three-bath house in the brand-new neighborhood of Presidio in the Pines, listed for $2,300. With only a month left on her lease, Becker responded to the post immediately. Within hours, a man responded. By the name of John Clatterbuck, the man asked Becker a few standard questions about roommates and pets. After a few emails, Clatterbuck changed his method of communication. At first, his frequent phone calls were reassuring to Becker. The man on the other line was charming, knowledgeable about the Flagstaff area, and open about his personal life. Through email, he sent Becker photos of him and his family, along with proof that he was a marine to help explain why he wasn’t currently in Northern Arizona. After receiving permission from Clatterbuck she visited the property, saw that the house was indeed empty, on the market, and owned by a man named John Clatterbuck. Seeing this uninhabited, for-rent home was sufficient enough for Becker.
At least three times a day, Becker would get a call from Clatterbuck. Often, he was making sure that Becker was still planning on moving in and would be putting down money for the deposit. “I’d tell him ‘yes,’ every time, but the calls would still come daily—sometimes hourly,” she told me. “He needed so much reassurance, and that began to worry me.”
The conversations between Becker and Clatterbuck went on for weeks. During this time, she sent the man money for application fees and pet deposits. The costs were small and therefore unsuspicious. But soon, Clatterbuck began to ask more intimate questions, and Becker learned oddly specific details about his life. “He’d email me photos of his uniform, as if he was trying to prove a point. Which he was—but at the time, I was so oblivious.” Becker explained that in the moment, these photos or phone calls were reassuring, as it seemed as though Clatterbuck was just attempting to create a landlord-renter relationship. It was at this time, too, that Clatterbuck requested the almost $4,000 deposit on the house.
At the end of April, the house was still empty, and Clatterbuck was still calling. “I needed to be out of my apartment in days,” Becker explained, “and I distinctly remember texting him that. He told me that he sent the paperwork off to his lawyer and was going to express ship the keys. This was reassuring, so I thanked him. He responded with—I still have the text— ‘awh, you’re welcome Kelsey.’ That was the last I heard from him.”
The next day was the expected move-in. With no keys and no landlord, Becker and her roommates headed to the house. Now, there was a soft light glowing from the house, and shadows of people passing by windows. “I knocked on their door sobbing. It didn’t register until that moment that this wasn’t real. That I didn’t have a house, a place to live, or practically any money.” Two young women opened the door, and Becker quickly learned they were the actual tenants of her dream home. The renters sympathetically let her know she was the eighth person to come by that day, expecting to move in.
After speaking with the women, the actual landlord, and the police, Becker learned that she and upwards of twenty other people (primarily students) had been scammed. The man who owned the house was indeed named John Clatterbuck, and the pictures received were of the actual owner, his wife, and his child. Only, this wasn’t the man with whom Becker had been speaking. It is likely that the man who had Becker’s $4,000 wasn’t even in the country. After only two days, officers “exhausted all leads” and closed the case, leaving Becker and at least a dozen others out of money and without a place to live.
Out of curiosity, I wanted to know the actual John Clatterbuck’s side. After reaching out to the current tenants, I was able to get his number and contact him about the whole ordeal. Interestingly enough, the real John knew about the Craigslist post but chose not to go to the authorities. He did not believe that the police would do anything about the fake post and simply continued to let his identity be used. It was only when Becker and her roommates took it to the authorities that this post was taken down.
As bizarre as this case sounds, it is not unusual. Less than a week later, NAU student Christina Mastrosimone came across another fake housing scam on Craigslist, eerily similar to “Clatterbuck’s” post. Being a classmate of Becker’s and knowing what she had just experienced, Mastrosimone sent her the post, asking for her opinion. The new post had almost identical language to the one Becker had fallen prey to, only for a different location. After updating the police--though they stated nothing could be done about the post--she reported the ad and hoped for the best. It was taken down a few weeks later.
Whether this post scammed students out of thousands or not, these fake housing advertisements cannot go ignored. In a place with such a significant housing deficit and a population that grows daily, these scams can be difficult to detect, and students find themselves being the target.
When looking for housing, stick to reliable, well-known housing sites and always meet the property owner or landlord before making decisions. Because off-campus housing isn’t always the easiest to find, NAU offers a few options on their website. Their Off-Campus Housing tab provides links to housing guides, connections for transfer students, and phone numbers to call in case further information is required. Students: affordable housing is out there, but you have to be safe finding it.