Strangers were living in Michael Hammaker’s Dayton home without his permission, but for a little while, he did not know how to get them to leave.
Hammaker’s property at 904 St. Nicholas Ave. in the Linden Heights neighborhood is in the process of being sold.
But multiple people recently moved in after allegedly responding to a fraudulent ad posted on on Craigslist saying the home was available to rent for $500 a month, officials said.
Hammaker wanted the unwelcome occupants out immediately, and he thought that should be easy to do because they were trespassing.
But he said he was wrong. It was much harder than he ever could have guessed.
Hammaker’s experience is not entirely unique: Scammers across the country have ripped off consumers by renting out or selling properties they do not own.
Hammaker says he does not know what could have stopped this from happening.
“In our situation, I honestly don’t know what could have been done to prevent this,” he said. “We can’t stay here every day.”
Hammaker says he visited his property at 904 St. Nicholas Ave. last week and was surprised to discover it was furnished when he walked inside.
His first thought maybe the buyer already started moving stuff in. But when he learned the truth, he was stunned: Strangers were living in his home without authorization.
Hammaker, 29, moved out of the home in March with his wife, Ashley, and son, Michael. They accepted an offer for the St. Nicholas home the same day it was put on the market.
Thomas Howell, 39, said he sent three money orders worth $1,500 to someone in Texas to rent the home after responding to a Craigslist ad, a police report states.
Howell told police there was a backdoor key left under a grill in the backyard and he moved in with his significant other, Amy Luttrell, a police report states. At least two other people also moved in, Hammaker said.
Someone broke into the home through a basement window and changed the lock to a backdoor, Hammaker said.
Hammaker said he wanted Howell and the others out immediately to avoid delaying the real estate closing.
Hammaker said he offered to pay for a hotel for Howell for up to a week. He felt bad for Howell and Luttrell because he saw the fake Craigslist ad and believes they may be victims of a scam.
Hammaker’s Realtor also allegedly offered to give Howell a place to stay for a month free of charge.
But Hammaker said his sympathy ran thin when Howell indicated he planned to stay in the home for as long as he could legally, maybe up to 30 days.
Hammaker said he got the police involved, and officers came out to the home multiple times.
But police personnel seemed unsure of the law and couldn’t agree whether Howell and Luttrell might have tenants’ or squatters’ rights, Hammaker said. They planned to get legal advice from the prosecutor on Monday.
On Saturday, Hammaker’s family, friends, neighbors and others protested outside of the home for hours while carrying signs with messages like, “Help us get squatters out!”
The protest irritated the occupants. Police were called after one of the occupants allegedly backed into another car. Howell was arrested for an outstanding warrant related to a misdemeanor assault charge.
On Monday, Hammaker said a police sergeant who consulted with the prosecutor’s office recommended he file for eviction to force Howell and others to move.
The process could take up to a month or possibly even longer, which would threaten to impact the sale, he said.
But a couple occupants apparently moved out over the weekend, and Luttrell was loading up her belongings on Monday.
If Howell and Luttrell are scam victims, they overlooked some red flags, including the cheap rental price and the fact that they evidently never had a face-to-face meeting with the “landlord,” Hammaker said.
Community members should do their research before buying or renting a property, because there are scammers and criminals out there who are looking to take advantage of people, Hammaker said.
Hammaker also said he hopes authorities get a clear answer about the law and how cases like this should be handled to help people who face issues like this moving forward.
Some people are desperate to find a place to live because of hard-to-overcome barriers into the housing market, like a bad credit history, history of eviction, criminal background and other issues, said Matthew Currie, managing attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality Inc. in Dayton.
People facing these obstacles or who do not have a lot of money may be vulnerable to scams because they do not have a lot of other options, Currie said.
“And I think post-tornado, it’s a much tighter rental market, and it may be more difficult for people to find a place to live,” he said.