Police investigating housing scam
U.S. bobsledding world champion Steve Mesler's friends and family will be there to watch him race for Olympic gold next month, after the kindness of strangers offered an escape from a scam that could have otherwise left them home.
Mesler's parents, Ben and Lois Mesler of Buffalo, N.Y., said Wednesday they and some of their friends were bilked out of $7,332 by someone purportedly willing to rent them a home in Whistler, British Columbia, during bobsled competitions at the upcoming Vancouver Games.
The story -- which became public earlier this week after Steve Mesler told the tale to a Vancouver radio station -- prompted an outpouring of support from "perfect strangers," Mesler said, including several families who offered homes during the Olympics for free.
The Meslers and a group of friends, 11 people in all, will take advantage of two of those offers next month.
"It's incredible," Lois Mesler told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "It's absolutely amazing."
Steve Mesler said he was approached by the U.S. Olympic Committee about the incident quickly after he learned about the situation Sunday before the World Cup finale in Austria.
"The outpouring of support has been amazing," said Steve Mesler, who has spent much of the last seven years living and training in Calgary. "I wouldn't have expected anything less from the Canadians."
Canadian police are investigating, and both they and the Meslers have received information from other people who claim they had money stolen by the same person who posed as the owner of a condo available for the Vancouver Olympics.
The Meslers say police in Canada have told them the suspect is wanted for questioning in at least three provinces but have also cautioned the family that recovering any money is a long shot.
A home address the suspect gave to Lois Mesler turned out to be fake.
"Overwhelming as it's been for everybody, especially my mom, who was kind of in charge of getting everything done ... there's been at least a dozen different people who wanted to help," said Steve Mesler, who helps push the USA-1 sled piloted by Steven Holcomb, part of the team that won the 2009 world four-man title and the 2010 World Cup crown.
On May 18, 2008, Lois Mesler posted a request for a five- or six-bedroom home on a Web site, Rent2010.net, saying she was the mother of a Vancouver-bound U.S. bobsledder and hoping someone willing to rent would contact her family. In February 2009, she deposited the Canadian equivalent of $2,854 (U.S.) into the bank account of a person she identified as Jason Hartlen as a down payment and security deposit.
"I thought the Web site looked official and everything," Lois Mesler said.
The site is. The offer was not.
"It's the sort of story nobody wants to ever hear about happening to anybody," said Mark Szekely, the site administrator for Rent2010.net. "Unfortunately, it's not always only nice people who use the Internet. And evidently, this person was able to gain this couple's trust."
On Jan. 19, Lois Mesler made the short drive from her Buffalo home across the border into Ontario and wired the rest of the money, $4,478 (U.S.), into another account, as requested by the alleged homeowner.
She did not hear back from the person for several days, called police four days later and was quickly told she'd been scammed.
"If it looks too good to be true ... oh, he got me," Lois Mesler said. "I was 'Trusting Lois.'"
She's a believer in others now.
The Meslers were still getting offers of help on Wednesday, and everyone in their party will have a place to stay during the Olympics.
"I just can't believe, it just keeps coming," Lois Mesler said. "I look at my Facebook page and I have messages from people that I don't even know. Incredible."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press