U.S. Army veteran Craig Dowling gathered his young family and left Pennsylvania in pursuit of a better life working in the oil and natural gas fields out West.
He didnt know hed wind up living in a Cortez motel room with his fiancee and three children after a Nigerian real-estate scam left them homeless.
While traveling, Dowling found an advertisement on the website Craigslist for a home for rent near Cortez. After contacting the purported owner of the home a man with a thick accent believed to reside in Nigeria Dowling and his fiancee Nancy Sanchez agreed to rent the home. They sent $1,500 for deposit and rent.
He said, hurry up and get to Colorado, the keys will be there waiting for you, Dowling said.
When they arrived, things were looking good.
We get to the house. My fiancee sees it for the first time up close. Were ecstatic, everybodys happy. We see mule deer in our yard that pumped us all up, Dowling said.
Everything was good except for the missing keys and paperwork.
They checked into a hotel in town and waited for several days while the Nigerian man told them to be patient. But the keys to the home never arrived.
Finally my patience wore out, Dowling said. So we went to the residence. I checked the doors. All the doors were locked, except the sliding glass doors popped right open. I figured you know what, I paid for this house, Im going in it.
The Dowling family moved in and even began making repairs to the home, a move that angered the Nigerian man.
I figured Im a good tenant Ill let him know, Dowling said. Then he turned his story around how dare you. Thats my house. I want $400 for the damages.
Dowling told the man that there were no damages.
The dispute led Dowling to contact law enforcement. That is when the bad news arrived.
It was discovered that the home did not belong to the Nigerian, but a man in Phoenix who suffered from brain cancer.
You never imagine it happening to yourself, Sanchez said.
Meanwhile another couple arrived to look at the home as a rental.
The Dowling family moved out and checked into a motel.
Ever since then, weve been stuck here wasting money I really dont have, because I put everything I had into that house, Dowling said.
Since the fraud could extend beyond international borders, Dowling was told to contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but has little hope of recovering his money.
Dowling said he had trusted the Nigerian man and his wife because they had official-looking paperwork and spoke often of faith and God.
Normally, I wouldnt do anything like that, Dowling said. Im usually pretty intelligent with the situation. But these people just seemed so right and everything that they did was so on-point. They were supposedly religious and everything seemed right. Obviously, I was wrong.
The money was transferred through the Western Union service, a common tool for scam artists because of its difficulty to trace.
But life goes on, and the priority is finding work.
I got three little ones and Ive got another one on the way, Dowling said. Ive got mouths to feed and a family to take care of. This put me in a big damper. Because I figured I was in that house, I had three months paid for. I could get my feet on the ground. Plenty of time. Now Im struggling and rushing and dont have any time.
Word about the Dowlings plight got out to community members, and they have since had several nights at their motel paid for and have been offered a free short-term place to stay when the current tenants move out.
In a short time, Dowling and his family have seen the best and worst of people.
Its so heartfelt, its unbelievable, Dowling said. I cant believe people would do such a thing. Words cant define how we feel with the people that are here and actually trying to help us out. And who would think that something like this could happen in such a small town.
Having learned his lesson, Dowling recommends not making purchases using Craigslist, e-mail or electronic transfer, but meeting face-to-face.
I dont want anyone else to go through what we just went through, he said.
Locals have set up the Craig Dowling Family Fund at Dolores State Bank to help the family with donations.
The FBI maintains a list of common scams at www.fbi.gov/scams-safety/fraud.