BRANDON, Fla. (WFLA) – Crooks are using bait houses to lure renters into thinking they’ve found the perfect deal on a house. After the renter sends money to the thief, they discover the home is actually owned by someone else, and their money is gone.
It’s a heartbreaking scenario being played out across Tampa Bay, and the scheme is hitting Bay area renters hard at a particularly bad time: when affordable housing is scarce and unemployment is high.
Van Williams found his house was being used in a bait house scheme. Williams owns an investment home and crooks targeted and used it as a bait house.
Williams bought the house in a centrally-located Brandon neighborhood and did extensive renovations in hope of flipping it. After putting on a new roof, knocking down walls and adding a new kitchen and bathroom, his investment company put the house on the market for sale.
His listing got the attention of a crook who stole the listing and used it to market the home for rent on Facebook and other online pages.
Williams discovered this after a savvy would-be renter became suspicious, researched the property and found Williams on his own.
“He said, ‘I think I’m a part of scam,” Williams said.
Williams found that the crook was asking $1,650 a month for the house, including utilities and had a sappy story about being out of town because his wife had cancer. The crook explained to the renter that he was just looking for someone to take care of the house while his wife battled cancer.
“Luckily, he didn’t fall for it,” Williams said. “But I can see how a lot of people would fall for this. If somebody looked through the windows and saw this house and saw how beautiful it is and if they could rent it for $1,650 a month, including … I would’ve fallen for it.”
There were other red flags. The crook asked for a $1,300 security deposit and promised to send the keys upon receipt of the money.
“Imagine how much money he could collect if he collected that deposit from 10 different renters,” Williams said. “No one would ever get the keys, but he doesn’t really own the home.”
Angry, Williams contacted the fake landlord email with the renter gave him and inquired about renting the house himself. Sure enough, the crook took the reverse bait and tried to rent Williams his own house.
Once Williams had fake rental agreement in hand, he wrote to the crook and told him he was on to him and police were investigating.
Then he turned to Better Call Behnken to spread the word to both homeowners who are selling or renting homes and those looking for houses to rent.
“I realize that no harm could come to me personally, but harm could come to other people, and if they can do it on my house, they can do it on any house that’s on the market,” Williams said.
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