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Empty houses still used in Craigslist rent scams

Craigslist: Good and bad

“Craigslist is a useful marketing tool when used legally and ethically,” says Margy Grant, vice president and general counsel for Florida Realtors. However, it’s also a favorite of scammers. Watch Grant’s Take 5 video for more information.

TAMPA, Fla. – Sept. 9, 2015 – Cliff Brown appeared to be an honest real estate agent trying to make a buck.

But looks can be deceiving.

Authorities say Cliff Brown was a fake name and that he scammed Yasmin Lopez and her girlfriend, Bianca Olivera, out of hundreds of dollars by pretending to be a real estate agent and taking their deposit for a rental house that wasn’t for rent.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office sees 15 to 20 similar scams a month, said sheriff’s office spokesman Larry McKinnon.

“They’ll find a house that is empty or appears to be abandoned,” McKinnon said.

In some cases, he said, the scam can go on for months, with the renters sending monthly checks to someone who has no connection to the home. The fraud often isn’t found out until the home’s real owner – or a legitimate real estate agent who is leasing out the home – shows up and finds unsuspecting renters living in the home.

“Generally, we will give them a couple of weeks to get out,” McKinnon said.

Rental homes advertised on Craigslist, McKinnon said, are an automatic warning sign. He said renters should always check an agent’s credentials with the Better Business Bureau and consult the clerk’s office to make sure a home is not in foreclosure.

Lopez and Olivera first made contact with Brown on July 20 about a rental home he advertised on Craigslist. When the two 21-year-olds pulled up to Minnehaha Street in Tampa, a black Dodge minivan was parked out front and Brown was inside the peach-colored house.

“There was a lockbox on the home,” Lopez said. “The house was beautiful.”

Lopez said Brown greeted them and said the property had belonged to his dead father. Lopez said he was smart and looked professional with his white dress shirt and black sport coat.

The couple strolled around the 1,250-square-foot house and liked everything they saw. They were so enamored, they said, they shrugged off the red flags: no “for rent” sign in the front yard; Realtor’s license left at home; no business card.

“We had our heads wrapped up in so many different things,” said Lopez, who works at her mother’s massage therapy practice with Olivera.

Nor did they look at the paperwork scattered across the granite kitchen counter.

“I assumed it was personal papers of other people,” she said.

The couple decided they wanted the house, Lopez said, so they gave Brown $800 cash down, plus another $50 for the background check application. He wrote them a receipt.

They were scheduled to meet with Brown a few hours later at a Wendy’s parking lot, Lopez said, and give him another $800 for the security deposit. But that time never came.

Between meetings, Lopez said, the couple learned Brown was going to show Olivera’s sister the same house. They grew suspicious.

“We looked further into it and we found the actual owner’s number, and he told us to call the police department,” she said.

Outside the house on Minnehaha, Lopez and Olivera waited for the police to arrive and take a report. Before that happened, however, Brown drove by in his minivan, then sped off.

“I was sure he didn’t know we called the cops,” Lopez said.

The couple jumped into Lopez’s Honda Civic hatchback and chased Brown but said he drove through stop signs, drove in the wrong direction on one-way roads and broke other traffic laws to avoid being caught.

“He was doing it all,” Lopez said.

Brown got away and Lopez and Olivera returned to the house, where the police were waiting along with five or six other cars belonging to potential renters.

It turns out everything about Brown was a lie, even the minivan; it was a rental registered under another person’s name.

Although he evaded Lopez and Olivera on the road, he was captured on video during the couple’s walkthrough.

“We were recording because we wanted to show our families the house,” Lopez said.

Since Lopez and Olivera’s run-in with Brown, the Minnehaha house has sold for $124,900, according to property appraiser records, and the couple has found a home in Tampa.

But the scams continue, McKinnon said.

“Just do your homework with these people before you pass money,” he said. “Because once you get money into their hand, they disappear into the night.”

© 2015 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.), Mark Wolfenbarger. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.  
Source: Florida Realtors Feed

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