Family loses $1,700 after scammer gets access to rental home’s lock box

PLAINFIELD, Ind. -- Scammers targeted a rental home in a quiet Plainfield neighborhood, and they could be coming to your community next.

Hoping for more space for their two young boys, Judy Herring and her boyfriend thought they'd found the perfect home to rent. They contacted the supposed landlord via a Craigslist ad, and he gave them the code to access a lock box on the door to look around.

"It was like a brand new home inside. It was beautiful," Herring said.

The man renting it claimed he was out of town in Puerto Rico for his daughter's wedding, but he sent Herring a lease that looked official. Everything seemed fine, she said, until she went to pay him the down payment and friends told her they were suspicious.

"The only way he would let me send it (was through) Money Gram," Herring said. "I was like, 'I don’t think it is (a scam), because I already have the key to the house."

Unfortunately, Herring didn't discover the truth until after she wired $1,700 out of the country.

"We were jumping for joy and then the floor came out from underneath us," Herring said.

Herring finally realized that it wasn't real when the scammers asked for another $850. She and her boyfriend went back to the home and called the leasing agency's number, listed on a sign in a window. The agency told them they were not the ones she's been talking to for weeks.

"They changed the lock because they went to open the door and the key was gone," Herring said.

Herring reported the case to Plainfield Police. Captain Jill Lees told FOX59 that this was the first time the department had heard of this type of scam, but that they get a lot of reports for scams of different kinds.

"You don't know who you're talking to (and) nine times out of 10, they're not local," Lees said.

Lees pointed out that if you're renting a home, you should always meet the landlord in person. You should also never wire money to someone you don't know, because there's no way to trace the wire transfer or get your money back.

Another red flag can be a posting on Craigslist or another internet website, where scammers can easily take photos from real estate sites and create their own fake advertisement.

"We tell people, try not to do those type of transactions over the internet. That’s where I think the biggest issue is, in starting down the path of fraud, is looking up that kind of stuff on the internet," Lees said.

FOX59 wanted to know how the scammers accessed the lock box, so we did our own digging. Turns out, the home was listed on a site called Rently.com, which allows users to access lock boxes by signing up and answering questions online, so they can look inside a home without waiting on a property manager.

When FOX59 signed up for the website, we answered the questions truthfully and found ourselves on warning pages, saying "Are you trying to view a home you found on Craigslist?" and "You are being scammed. Our partners do not use Craigslist. You are not dealing with a real landlord." However, answering the questions untruthfully could have led us to the lock box number.

Herring said the lock box made her feel like the deal was more legitimate, so now she wants to get the word out about the scam so someone else won't fall for it. Neighbors told FOX59 they had seen many people show up to look at the home and had heard from at least one other person who suspected he was being scammed.

"It's a horrible thing to do to somebody," Herring said. "We (have) to start saving again ... and trying to find another house."

If you find a scam like this one, report it to your local police agency, the Better Business Bureau, and the Indiana Attorney General.