The strangers found living in a Dayton home last month said they were among the latest victims of a type of scam that has conned people out of large sums of money and puts private property at risk of unwelcome intruders.
The unwanted dwellers told police they paid $1,500 to rent a Linden Heights property after responding to an online ad on Craigslist that the real owner says was bogus. The home actually was in the process of being sold.
Other local owners say their properties have been advertised in fake listings, and some potential renters told this newspaper they nearly fell for similar scams but sensed something was amiss before making any payments.
Fraudulent rental listings can be hard to spot, and the scams affect both the potential renter and the property owner, said Larry Lasky, a local attorney at large who represents landlords.
They create nightmare scenarios for property owners, whose homes may be broken into, and who often have to spend time and money to evict the occupants.
“It happens a lot,” Lasky said. “And it’s very frustrating.”
When renters are “innocent dupes,” they end up giving scammers some of the most important and valuable information in their lives, as well as significant sums of money they’ll never see again, said Lasky.
Squatters or renters?
In August, Michael Hammaker said he found multiple strangers living in what should have been his vacant home on 904 St. Nicholas Ave. He made the discovery when he went to check on the home in preparation for its sale.
Thomas Howell, 39, who was living in the home with several others, told police he sent three $500 money orders to someone in Texas to rent the property, which was advertised on Craigslist.
Hammaker said he learned about the fake Craigslist ad from his Realtor. He also received phone calls from people interested in leasing the home after seeing the bogus listing.
Hammaker wanted Howell and the other people out right away. He worried their presence might interfere with the sale.
They stayed for several days and the purchase fell through, though Hammaker says that might have happened anyway.
The occupants moved out after Hammaker and friends, family and neighbors held a protest outside the home that called for the “squatters” to leave.
If they had not voluntarily moved out, it could have taken 30 days for longer to force them out through the eviction process, Hammaker said.
Beavercreek home’s rent too cheap
Rental scams are not a new problem, but recently, some local home owners discovered their properties have been targeted by fraudsters.
Loren Maxwell, who owns a home off Kemp Road in Beavercreek, said he was contacted by Mike Vandale, who saw a Craigslist ad to rent his property.
Maxwell’s home has been advertised online, but not on Craigslist.
“That ad is out there and there is someone who almost fell for it,” said Maxwell, who recently filed a police report about the fake ad.
Vandale, 29, said he communicated with the person who posted the Craigslist ad via email and text.
Vandale was interested in the five-bedroom home because of its size and location.
He visited the home twice and entered through an unlocked back door, as instructed. The person he messaged said he was unavailable to meet in person.
But Vandale said he grew suspicious because the rent was only $1,000 per month.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true,” Lasky said.
Vandale looked up the property information on the auditor’s website and directly contacted the owner directly.
Vandale said he was probably minutes away from sending the Craigslist contact a form with all of his personal information, including his Social Security number and driver’s license number.
He also was a day or two away from sending $2,000 to the unknown party.
“I am probably not going to use Craigslist anymore,” he said. “But I wasn’t having any luck with any of the other rental websites, because it’s hard to find a four-bedroom house.”
What to watch for
Benita Shea, Maxwell’s agent and a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Heritage, said her company does not use Craigslist because of concerns about scams and fraud.
“This was not an authorized listing,” she said. “Our company does not want us advertising on Craigslist.”
Shea said she encountered this same type of scam years ago involving houses that were for sale but were advertised for rent online.
Potential renters would be foolish to send money without first getting inside the property and interacting with a real person, she said.
Typically, a con artist takes information like property addresses and photos from a legitimate real estate listing and reposts it on Craigslist or other websites, according to a July message to consumers from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.
The listings tend to ask for below-market rents and instruct potential renters to send money via wire transfer or other payments that are virtually impossible to track and recover, officials said.
Scammers may try to collect phony application fees, down payments, security deposits and first month’s rent, the office said.
Sometimes, the primary goal is to get people’s personal and financial information, like their Social Security numbers and bank or credit card accounts.
Red flags for renters
Renters should look for red flags like a lack of face-to-face meetings, no phone conversations and no written lease agreements, Lasky said.
It’s definitely fishy if potential renters are not offered or provided a tour of a property they want to rent, Lasky said, but some scammers find ways to get inside the homes, likely through forced entry.
Lasky said many of his landlord clients are out-of-state, but they all have local representatives, often who are licensed Realtors.
Renters really need to do their homework and be on the lookout for anything suspicious, like the lack of a local contact or owner’s representative, he said.
Con artists and scammers are highly unlikely to get caught and prosecuted because they can hide their identities using the Internet and really could be anywhere in the country or world, Lasky said.
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