Victims lose thousands of dollars to Indy rental scams

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- An Indianapolis property management company is warning Hoosiers about ongoing rental fraud after two women lost thousands of dollars in separate scams.

One of the women, who wants to remain anonymous, says she and her children have virtually no money and one week to find a new place to live after falling victim to one of the scams.

“They don’t understand the predicament they’ve put me in with my kids,” she said.  “I’ve got twelve dollars to my name after doing all of this.”

The victim says a woman she didn’t know overheard her three weeks ago as she was telling friends that she was looking for a house to rent.  The woman told the victim she knew a man who rents houses and asked to pass the victim’s phone number on to the man.  The victim agreed and soon received a call from a man who said his name was Terrell.

“He called me and he told me that he had this house, and if I could come out and take a look at it, and I did,” the victim said.

The victim said the man had the keys to the house in the 5400 block of Lake Boggs Street, on the northwest side of Indianapolis.  She met him there and he showed her the house.

“He said it was him and his wife and his cousin that rented out houses,” the victim said.

After seeing the house, the victim says she signed a lease that looked legitimate.  She even received receipts for her payments.  The woman had already started making improvements to the home when another man came by two weeks later.

“He knocked on the door and he asked me who was I,” she said.  “And I asked him who he was.”

The man at the door was the real property manager.  He told the young woman that she and her children should not be living in the house because the real owner had not rented it to her.  At that moment, the young woman realized she had been scammed.

She had paid roughly $4,000 to people who were nowhere to be found.

“I was trying to reach them, but their phones are off,” she said.  “They don’t know the predicament they’ve put me in with my kids.  I’ve got $12 to my name after doing this.”

Another case reported to police on Sunday involved a house in the 11000 block of Arches Drive, on the east side of Indianapolis.  The owner of the house came by to check on the property and found people living in it.  The woman living in the house told police she and her family had found the house advertised on Craigslist and she had called for a showing.  After viewing the house, the woman said she had paid another woman $3,600 for the first month’s rent and a security deposit.  The woman who answered the advertisement had the keys to the house and gave them to the victim after the deal was signed.

The owner of the house told police he and his wife were in the process of turning the property over to the bank so the bank could sell it for them.  He had not given anyone permission to rent the house out to anybody.

Owners of the Wilmoth Group, which manages the house on Lake Boggs Street, say rental scams are a regular problem in the realty business.  Jennifer Wilmoth says scammers are constantly searching for online rental property listings that they can pass off as their own.

“Scammers will go into a Zillow or a Realtor.com, notice the home is vacant and then they will advertise it on Craigslist,” Wilmoth said.  “We’ve had that happen several times with our brokerage.”

When scammers post the copied listing onto Craigslist or other websites, they normally keep all the information the same, except for the contact information.  A prospective renter who finds the listing on Craigslist will see all the same information as the legitimate listing.  But when they call or email about the listing, they’re contacting the scammer instead of the legitimate owner.

When looking at a listing on Craigslist, Wilmoth recommends searching for the same listing on other reputable websites.

“Do you see it on Realtor.com, do you see it on Zillow.com,” Wilmoth said.  “Is it listed by a professional brokerage?”

Wilmoth said scammers will often agree to rent to people with troubled credit without putting the prospective renter though any kind of application process.  And, she says, you can always check with your county’s recorder’s office to confirm the identity of the actual owner of the property.  Those tax records are public information and can help a renter confirm that they are dealing with the right person.  Many Indiana counties offer property tax information on their county websites.

As for how scammers get the keys to the houses they are illegally renting?  Wilmoth says it’s common for scam artists to look for vacant houses so they can change the locks on the doors.  Having the keys to the house helps to give the appearance that they own or manage the property.

“You can go to a Lowes or a Home Depot and just buy a new one and just switch them out,” Wilmoth said.

In many cases, however, police say people who claim to be victims of rental scams are actually suspects.  IMPD officials say a common scam called “cash for keys” involves a suspect finding a foreclosed or vacant house, breaking into the house, and continuing to stay in the home until the owner or property manager finds them there.  The suspect produces a fake lease, and tries to pass themselves off as being a victim.