PINELLAS PARK, Fla. (WFLA) — Of all the temporary residents and passersby of the Express Inn right off the highway, Memori Middlebrooks did not think this was where she, her husband, and their toddler and newborn would be holed up there too.
“I don’t understand how people,” Middlebrooks said. “How do you sleep at night doing that to people?”
Her family’s belongings are stuffed in the 300 or so square foot room, as she burps her baby on one of the two queen size beds, her toddler running around, squealing for attention.
“I’m holding in my tears,” Middlebrooks sighed. “I can’t understand, I hate people like that. Like, who raised you to be that way?”
After months of searching, Middlebrooks thought her husband found her dream home in St. Petersburg.
“He found a house on the marketplace, Facebook Marketplace, and he thought it was legit,” Middlebrooks explained. “It seemed legit. We had the lease agreement, like he emailed it to him and everything.”
But when they went to view the home, the address they were given was for a church. While the second address the online homeowner was good, a sign outside read, “No Rentals.” But the man online explained it all away.
Middlebrooks and her husband paid the $3,000 — first month’s rent, security deposit, and a key fee. They paid via Cash App to someone the man online said was his attorney.
“He never met him in person,” Middlebrooks said. “He met him online through the marketplace.”
After they paid, the scheme went deeper — the alleged homeowner had a locksmith come and change the locks to the place for the Middlebrooks. They finally moved in and spent the night in what they thought was their forever home. If they had made it this far, they thought, it had to be real.
“The next day,” Middlebrooks recalled. “People come to the door saying they’re looking at the house, want to come look at the house.”
It was a gut punch — Middlebrooks tried calling the man from Facebook Marketplace.
“It just went downhill,” Middlebrooks said. “He took everything. He disconnected his phone. No response.”
Afraid of trespassing and squatting, Middlebrooks moved her family to a motel down the street, realizing she had been duped.
“Don’t always get your hopes up,” Middlebrooks said.
Recently, the home was officially sold by a company, Bungalo Homes. When the real owner arrived Sunday, she was confused by the deadbolt on the door — she expected a PIN pad.
“When I spoke with the contract manager, he let me know that no one from Bungalo would have changed it,” Jessica said. “And Craigslist scams, or scams in general with rentals were pretty common with Bungalo Homes.”
Common enough that Bungalo Homes has a section of their website and an email address dedicated to potential rental schemes. In an automated response to 8 On Your Side’s email queries, Bungalo Homes replied:
As a reminder, Bungalo does not offer rental homes, and we do not list our homes on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. Bungalo will never ask you to wire money or transfer funds to an individual. All transactions are done online at www.bungalohomes.com.Bungalo Homes (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The new owner contacted the sheriff to clear the home before she went inside.
“The sheriff got in contact with Bungalo, the LLC I guess,” Jessica said. “They kind of confirmed that they were aware that there was a scam and that they were handling it.”
Jessica and Middlebrooks went through the same rental and housing market.
“If I wanted something similar it would be $2,400 a month,” Jessica said. “Whereas, my monthly payments here are goign to be about 19, so, obviously it’s a no-brainer.”
While Middlebrooks did submit a police report, lawyers say these kind of criminals are tough to catch.
“But it’s very hard to find these people,” said Frank Kerney. “They know how to make themselves ghosts on the internet.”
Kerney is a Tampa-based attorney with The Consumer Lawyers.
“It doesn’t shock me at all,” Kerney said. “We get calls about that almost every single day.”
And they can’t really help.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to turn these folks down, because there’s not a lot we can do,” Kerney said. “We have to refer them to law enforcement agencies and try to help them in that capacity.”
Kerney said while some payment apps offer protection services, the money could be tied up for months.
“I would not do one of these transactions with somebody that I’ve never met before,” Kerney said. “And if I wasn’t going to be doing it at the time I was exchanging the goods.”
But it’s too late for Middlebrooks.
“We did not want our kids to live like this,” she said.
Stressed and tired, she’s been leaning on friends and family for help.
“People have kids, people have dreams of a house one day,” Middlebrooks said. “It don’t make any sense, like none whatsoever.”
Middlebrooks did make a GoFundMe to help recover as much as she can. You can learn more and donate here.
Cash App told 8 On Your Side they would look into the issue, and added some tips to prevent being taken advantage of.
- Only send payments to people you trust.
- Verify and double-check all recipient information before sending any payment to confirm you are sending money to the correct person.
- Check the other person’s profile to help determine if it is the correct person.
- Contact Cash App if there are any unauthorized transactions.
- Regularly review your transactions so you can quickly identify anything out of the ordinary.