The News4JAX I-TEAM is uncovering a rental rip-off with a new twist. With so many people trying to find a home to rent and grabbing what they can quickly, you could get scammed out of thousands of dollars -- even though you think you’ve done the right research.
Graduate student Veranda Riccardi found that out after she moved into a home in St. Johns County and was living there for almost a week when she learned she hadn’t rented the home at all and wasn’t legally allowed to be there.
“It all just seemed so unreal,” she said.
Riccardi was looking for a place to live in January to start her graduate program at the University of St. Augustine. “We found the listing through Craigslist, and then we saw it was on a bunch of other (sites), Apartment.com, Rent.com so we thought, ‘Okay it’s a legit sale.’” Riccardi says she noticed the rental price and phone numbers were different on each website – which are red flags – but says the man she spoke to claimed to be the owner and had an answer for the different dollar figures. In fact, she says he had an answer for everything she asked.
“He said one included utility and a cleaning service, and the other was just the house rent which sounded pretty legit,” she said. “How did you get into the house?” News4JAX Consumer Investigator Lauren Verno asked Riccardi.
“It was a lockbox,” she answered. “He said just texted me when you’re there I will give you a code to the lock box which made us feel like it wasn’t a scam because he was able to have access to the lockbox.”
Communicating back and forth over the phone and by text, Riccardi says she was able to get into the home with no problems. And she signed what she thought was a legitimate contract. The man who claimed to own the house even went as far as sending her a copy of a driver’s license to prove he was real. “It’s the little things like that, that he knew to say to keep it a legit thing,” Riccardi said. In total, Riccardi sent the man $3,000 through Zelle. And when she noticed the name on the Zelle account was different than the name on the driver’s license – yes, he had an answer for that, too. He claimed it was his wife.
The money went through and that week, Riccardi moved into the home. “How did you find out this was actually a scam?” Lauren asked. “This guy comes up and knocks on the door, and he’s basically like, ‘Are you guys living here?’ And (my roommate) was like, ‘Yes.’ And was like, ‘No!’” The man who knocked on the door was a representative for American Homes 4 Rent -- the leasing company that property appraiser records show is the actual owner of the property.
“That’s when we found out it was a scam and he said immediately, you have to be out by Monday. This was a Thursday,” explained Riccardi.
Riccardi filed a police report with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, but in the end, she wasn’t legally allowed to stay in the home.
“We freaked out,” she said when she learned she only had days to move out. While Riccardi scrambled to find a new place to go, she gave the I-TEAM the phone number of the man she was communicating with and took her $3,000 for rent.
- We first tried calling the man, and we left a voicemail asking about rental information regarding the same home Riccardi thought she rented.
- Then, we received a text telling us the property we were inquiring about was no longer available, but he had a similar one in the same neighborhood available for $1,295 a month.
We Googled the address he gave us to see what pops up. We found the same 3-bedroom/2 ½ bath home – but it was listed for more than $2,000 and not the $1,295 we were quoted. The nearly thousand-dollar difference is a red flag.
We followed up with a text asking him if he owned the home. He replied, “I’m the owner.” However, our search of property records show ownership belongs to an LLC that traces back to American Homes 4 Rent -- so he’s not the owner he claims to be. We reached out to American Homes 4 Rent about Riccardi’s situation and what we encountered ourselves -- the person trying to rent us one of their homes. The company provided us this statement:
“Although American Homes 4 Rent does not provide comment on specific incidents, we do have a range of tools in place to counter and reduce the risk of rental scams occurring at our properties (e.g., we partner with industry affiliates to reduce fraud, prominently brand and identify homes, post fraud stickers in homes, employ a team to constantly search for and flag fraudulent ads, track fraud, and report fraud to authorities). We strive to educate consumers on how to avoid rental scams and work with technology, listing, and industry partners to root out fraud and enhance protections. We do not list on craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and other sites where fraud is most prevalent.”
With the company stating it does not list on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and other sites where fraud is most prevalent, Riccardi says in hindsight, it should have raised more concerns for her.
“Even in our minds we we’re like this could be a scam. But as first-time renters, there’s so many things you don’t know,” she admitted. Riccardi did find another legitimate home to rent before her deadline to move out – but learned a hard lesson in the process.
When finding a home on Craigslist: Check with the property appraiser’s office first to find out who owns the property. Once you do, go directly to that website or verify that person. In this case it would be American Homes 4 Rent. (We have direct links to each county’s property appraiser websites below.)
When you see different pricing: If the cost is lower than the same property listed on other websites, beware
Sending money: Don’t send money to a stranger through Zelle. The I-TEAM got this advice from Zelle itself when we contacted the company about Riccardi’s situation. A representative told us Zelle is designed for family, friends and people who know and trust each other – not stranger to stranger payments.
For now, Riccardi is out the $3,000 she paid. Zelle tells us the company does have a fraud department but because it’s designed for people who know each other, it does not offer purchase protection like most credit cards.
Check for the real property owner
You can check on a county’s property appraisers’ website to find the real owner of a property. All you do is type in the address to see who the true owner is. Below you’ll find direct links, county-by-county.
- St. Johns https://www.sjcpa.us/home-2021/search-2/
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