Liz Lightfoot put her St. Paul home up for sale after taking a job in Arizona. She was more than a little surprised to learn someone else had put her home up for rent.
She and police are cautioning others about the latest scam after someone broke into her home in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood and listed it for rent on Facebook to take deposits and initial payments. The scammer went so far as to give prospective tenants tours.
"I wasn't the real victim, I mean, even though it was my house," Lightfoot said. "But the people who were about to give this woman their first and last month's rent and their security deposit, [this] could have made them unable to get a house."
Her real estate agent reported the situation to St. Paul police. Though officers confronted the woman, who had brought two kids along for a phony showing, no arrest has been made. Police say the case is active.
Market ripe for scams
Scammers are taking advantage of the tight housing market and desperate homebuyers and renters.
"We know anytime there's a shortage of any product or service, that also means that scammers are going to take advantage of that opportunity to take people's money and their identity," said Bao Vang, vice president of communications at the Better Business Bureau.
Lightfoot lived in the house for more than 20 years. It's where she raised her three children. After a job out of state prompted the move and her decision to sell, she hoped a new family would move into the home she loved.
Neighbors later told Lightfoot that the "For Sale" sign in front of her house was changed to a "For Rent" sign, and that a woman with two children was seen giving tours. The Lightfoot house is on the market for about $300,000 but the scammer tried to rent it for $1,200 a month. Lightfoot's real estate agent, Benjamin Songstad, called it a "deal too good to be true."
About a dozen potential renters inquired about the house, though only a few apparently were suspicious, Lightfoot said.
Rosa Cabrera was one of the potential tenants who toured it. She was in a rush to find a new place to live since her apartment lease ends July 1, Cabrera said. She is also pregnant, and due anytime.
"I went there ready. You know, I wanted that home. I'm about to have a baby. And I wanted it," Cabrera said. "It didn't matter if it ... needed painting and stuff like that, because my boyfriend is a professional painter."
When she went to tour the house, though, Cabrera immediately had an uneasy feeling. The front door was locked and even though there was a keypad, the woman asked one of her children to go through the back to get in, Cabrera said.
Once inside, the woman made excuses for not knowing basic information about the house, such as the number of rooms, she said. Cabrera soon saw a chance to get out, so she made an excuse.
Outside, she saw a sign with a phone number and called, which connected her to Songstad. Songstad called police.
"When he told me that it was for sale and it wasn't for rent, I felt super upset," Cabrera said. "Nobody just hands you money. Me and my boyfriend work for it. And for somebody to scam us like that and we're about to have a baby. It was so upsetting."
When officers arrived at the house about 7 p.m. on June 7, they found a broken basement window but no one inside, according to a police report.
Later the same day, another prospective tenant called police about a woman trying to rent the same house to him. When officers arrived, they found the woman there, with two children. She denied involvement.
Lightfoot said that officers haven't updated her on the case. Knowing the woman had two children with her, she doesn't want to press charges.
Tips to protect yourself
The BBB operates a scam tracker on its website that currently has nearly 300,000 reports. The organization offers a number of tips to help prospective renters avoid getting swindled:
- Confirm the landlord's identity by checking identification. Confirm the property owner by checking county registers.
- Know local rental prices or prices for similar properties.
- Read the lease agreement and ask questions.
- Never wire money or pay without seeing the property.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety also lists resources and tips on its website for those who have been scammed.