VILANO BEACH, Fla. - There's a consumer alert in St. Johns County, where investigators said an Alabama man spent more than $4,000 to rent a home in Vilano Beach and drove seven and a half hours to get there -- only to find out that a family lives there and it's not up for rent.
The home in Vilano Beach -- according to Orestes Hernandez, of Shelby, Alabama -- appeared in a Craigslist ad as a rental property. Hernandez said he spoke by phone with the Craigslist poster, who identified himself as a Kissimmee, Florida, man. Hernandez said everything seemed proper.
"He sent us paperwork through email that we had to print out, fill out and sign. Pretty much everything seemed legit -- a leasing agreement and everything for an entire year," Hernandez told News4Jax.
Hernandez said he then sent the Craigslist poster $4,100 through PayPal. Then, Hernandez said, he drove seven and a half hours to the home he thought he rented, but he learned it was occupied by a family. That’s when he told deputies he realized he’d been had.
"It was very upsetting knowing people actually want to do that. Instead of going out and working hard to earn money, they (would) rather sit behind a screen and rob people of their hard-earned money," Hernandez said.
The homeowner didn’t want to go on camera. But, according to a St. Johns County Sheriff's Office report, he said that it wasn't the first time a photo of his house ended up on Craigslist as part of a rental hoax. He also said other neighbors have dealt with this problem.
The investigation revealed that the Craigslist poster was using a Google phone number that had been previously reported to law enforcement. Unfortunately for investigators, it’s a Google number that can’t be tracked back to a single person. And although investigators have a name and picture of the person who was in contact with Hernandez, they are not sure if the person used someone else's name and photo.
Hernandez said he is working with his financial institution to try and recoup the money he lost.
News4Jax crime and safety expert Ken Jefferson said this online hoax happens on a regular basis and con artists are good at pretending to be legitimate renters.
"They’ll make up all kinds of fraudulent papers. They will make it all look legit, then send you to a trusted site such as PayPal to make the payments. They know how to make it untraceable back to them. They know how to disguise their phone number -- disguise everything," Jefferson said.
Jefferson said the best way to avoid becoming a victim is to do your homework.
"I would recommend that before you make any type of major transactions such as this that you physically check out the property and physically meet the owner," Jefferson said. "Even if you are in another state, the risk of you not doing that will yield you just what unfortunately this individual got defrauded out of $4,100."
While Jefferson said there are people legitimately advertising on Craigslist, he suggested looking for rental properties on trusted real estate websites to avoid the risk or falling prey to someone pretending to be legitimate. After what happened to him, Hernandez agrees.
"Don’t believe anything you see on Craigslist, and if it’s not a legit actual website, don’t do it," he said.
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