Diane and Dennis Garcia have lived in their Lutz home for more than a decade. Now in their 70s, they’re ready to downsize from their 2,800-square-foot home.
“[We wanted to] find something a little smaller, a little less yard to take care of,” Dennis explained.
Diane’s a realtor, so she knew what kind of pictures and descriptions of the home would attract potential buyers. Sure enough, three days after listing it, people started to pull up in front of the home.
“We had six different people show up wanting to rent the house. We couldn't figure out what was going on,” Dennis told FOX 13.
Then they saw the rental ad: their $500,000 home was listed on Craigslist -- for $800 a month.
“Here was the picture of our home, with the ad exactly as it came off of multiple listings. The exact description,” Diane said.
Interested renters were told to drive by and if they liked the place, to send the $500 deposit. The person behind the post identified themselves as Dennis Garcia and created the email address email@example.com.
The real Dennis Garcia couldn’t believe it.
“I said, ‘That's not us, because we're on Yahoo,’” he said.
“That’s when you start thinking, what else do they know about us?” Diane added.
A variety of rental schemes soared at the downturn of the housing crisis. They’re still around because, sometimes, they still work – and they’re getting increasingly sophisticated.
“Properties that were vacant in either pre- or post-closure were being rented by landlords that had no legal right to the property,” described Alice Vickers, an attorney and director of the Florida Alliance for Consumer Protection. “People would rent them in good faith and in many cases, move in.”
Vickers says government housing property records, readily available online, lends itself to the scams.
In this case, the scammer most likely took the extra step of looking up county records for the house, so if savvy renters looked up the property ownership, the names would seemingly match up.
“These scammers are very savvy at using these free ads for their advertising,” said Carl Stratton with Dennis Property Management, adding that the fraudsters usually use burner phones. “After they make their 500 bucks or a $1,000, they disconnect their phone and they'll never find it again.”
The email accounts are often burner accounts too – with automatic responses set up to string along potential victims.
Viewers have sent other Craigslist postings to us in the past few days that show Hillsborough and Pinellas County homes that are for sale, but listed for rent. The replies from the “seller” are full of red flags. In one, the scammer identifies themselves as a “DEAF WOMAN” in all caps, they say their name is “BOZEMAN, VICTORIA” and instructs the person to only text a Google Voice number.
Another says to ignore the “for sale” sign in the yard. An email sent to the same post from different email accounts will often yield the same vague auto response from someone posing as the homeowner.
The Garcias reported their experience to Craigslist. The post has since been taken down. They also made reports to law enforcement – but they’re not expecting much of a response. Instead they’re taking their own action by posting laminated “not for rent” signs in their yard and warning others.
“We're being victimized, as well as anyone else who has a home on the market,” Diane said. “But honestly, the true victims are the people who are sending their money and getting nothing for it. It's very sad.”