As real estate prices skyrocket, scammers target unsuspecting renters desperate for a bargain
ON A SUNNY morning in January, marketing writer Amanda Kahan was working in her Lake Worth Beach home when she heard a knock on the door.
“Hello, I’m here to see your house for rent,’’ said the man standing at her doorway.
Kahan looked at him in disbelief before replying, ‘’What?’’
The man held up his smartphone showing her the listing on a website called hotpads.com. “I live in the neighborhood and I came to check it out,’’ he said.
“OK, that’s really strange,’’ Kahan told him, “because our house is not for rent.’’
Kahan, who never mentioned her name to the man, asked him if there was an agent listed on the ad. “He said, ‘Yeah, it’s listed under Amanda Kahan,’’’ she recalled.
“I almost freaked out,’’ she recalled. “I was like, ‘It’s not for rent. Sorry.’’’
Kahan reported the incident to hotpads.com, which removed the listing, and she thought that was the end of that.
A few days later, she was sitting with her husband in the living room when another man knocked on the door and asked, “Is your house for rent?”
After turning the prospective renter away, the couple Googled their address as a rental house. They were shocked to see the results.
“It was everywhere,’’ said Colin Shalo, Kahan’s husband. “Google, Rent.com, Realtor.com, TurboTenant.’’
They spent the rest of the day navigating those websites for links and phone numbers to remove the bogus ad, then filed a report with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
But it didn’t stop strangers from showing up at their door or the parade of cars slowly passing their house in the ensuing days and weeks.
Kahan and the College Park dream house she bought with Shalo in 2019 were unknowing pawns in a scam orchestrated by a con artist preying on desperate renters in South Florida’s white-hot housing market.
The bogus ads lead to exchanges by email and phone in which the scammer tells prospective renters they can’t do a walk-through of the house because it is still occupied until a certain date.
The scammer explains that they can still secure the house now; all they need to do is send a down payment or the first few months of rent and they’ll get the keys as soon as the house is available. If they decide after seeing the house that they don’t want it, the scammer says, they will get their money back.
Scammers have been doing that for years, often on Craigslist. And they’re doing it again, this time using other websites and taking advantage of desperate renters in South Florida’s hot real estate market, where rental rates continue to climb.
Average monthly asking rents in West Palm Beach jumped nearly 31 percent year over year in January to $2,973, tied with Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa for the seventh fastest-rising rents in the United States, according to a new study.
“With it being such a competitive market, it is very easy to be misled and taken advantage of,’’ said Devuyo Marcelin, chief executive officer of South Florida Rental Experts.
“It’s worse now because you have multiple-offer scenarios on rental properties’’ Marcelin said. “Typically, you would apply for an apartment and you'd get in. Now they're asking for best offers on a rental property, which makes no sense.’’
In Kahan’s case, the scammer found old online listings for their house and used the photos and details to create a bogus ad asking for $1,850 a month in rent, which is roughly $1,000 a month lower than typical rents for houses.
To make the bogus ad look as authentic as possible, the scammer looked up the house’s address on the property appraiser office website and found Kahan’s name as a co-owner. Her name was then used, along with a fake name, “William Frank,” in email correspondence with would-be renters.
“The person was really creepy, telling people to drive by the house to get a feel for the neighborhood,’’ Kahan said.
“I started working in the kitchen so I could look out the window, and there were tons of cars coming by and slowing down and stopping.’’
At least five people actually knocked on her door, and four other strangers reached out to her on Facebook to ask to see her house.
It got so bad, Kahan and Shalo posted a hand-written sign on their front door: “NOT FOR RENT listing created by scammers.’’
Whether anyone lost money to the scam isn’t clear, but Kahan said at least one woman indicated she did.
“I felt so bad for these people who are looking for a place to live and they think they've found something great,’’ Kahan said. “A house listed for just $1,800 a month? The rental market is insane right now and these people think they've found something, then they realize they've totally gotten screwed.’’
For Kahan and her husband, it was a nightmare just navigating all the websites to find the appropriate person or link to remove the bogus ad. After several unsuccessful attempts to reach anyone at TurboTenant, Kahan found the company’s Facebook page and wrote a scathing comment criticizing the company for allowing a bogus ad that sent strangers to her house.
TurboTenant finally removed the ad. But Kahan’s Facebook comment was viewed by at least one would-be renter who’d inquired about her house.
“My heart broke for her when she said people were showing up at her house,’’ said Emily Cohn of Lake Worth Beach.
Cohn and her fiance, Gregg Baruch, saw the ad around Jan. 16. The $1,850 rent seemed too good to be true, Cohn said, but their current landlord was selling the house they’d been renting and they needed to find a new place fast.
The scammers “told us to apply on TurboTenant. We gave them our bank statements and Social Security numbers and paid a $95 application fee,’’ Cohn said.
“We offered six months in advance because that house was so amazing and rent was only $1,850.’’
But as she corresponded with the man, she realized something was amiss. There were grammar errors in the email. He started emails with “Hello, Cohn,’’ without a “Ms.” or her first name.
In the one phone conversation she had with the man, she said he had a thick accent that suggested he was from the Middle East. She later did a reverse tracking on the phone number which tracked to a woman in Georgia.
Cohn also Googled the address and found the old Zillow ads with the same photo and descriptions as the rental ad. Her suspicions were confirmed when she looked up the deed to the house in public records and found Kahan’s name.
“That’s when we knew we were dealing with a scammer,’’ Baruch said.
They filed a report with PBSO and continued exchanging emails with the scammer without letting him know they were on to him. They hoped to lure him into giving them his address so they could pass it on to PBSO detectives.
“We told him, ‘We’re just just around the corner. We can just swing by and drop off the check.’ After that, we never heard from him again,’’ Baruch said.
Cohn said she and her fiance were lucky because they never sent the scammer the six months of rent they’d promised. She said a detective told them “a lot of people will just write a check” and send it to the scammer.
TurboTenant refunded her and her fiancee’s $95 application fees. They said they hope the company can guarantee the assurances it offered about their bank account and Social Security numbers being encrypted and not accessible to the scammer.
Marcelin, with South Florida Rental Experts, said he always tells his clients to never send money without seeing the house first, always be suspicious if the rent seems low and make sure to do proper research on the property.
“I tell them if it looks too good to be true, it's always going to be too good to be true. There's always a catch,’’ he said.
Shalo said rental websites should post visible warnings about potential scams.
“Every time we reported (the bogus ad to various rental websites), we said, ‘What is your vetting process? Anyone can just pick out an address and say this house is for rent?’ And they’d said, ‘Oh, we have an extensive vetting process. Sometimes they slip through the cracks,’’ Shalo said.
“The housing market encourages“ scammers, Baruch said. “Everyone is so desperate to get a place they can afford. There are probably a lot of people out there who lose money. It could happen to anybody.’’
For Kahan and Shalo, the only positive experience from the sham was the polite reactions from strangers who knocked on their door.
“Everyone has been nice,’’ Shalo said. “We kept expecting people to get mad at us and think we were behind it but we were lucky.’’
They believe the worst is over. No one has showed up at their door since Feb. 6.
That day, they were relaxing at home when a woman knocked on the door as her boyfriend sat in a car.
“She said, ‘We’re supposed to move in and they said you were moving out yesterday,’’’ Shalo recalled. “I was like, ‘You got scammed, I’m really sorry to tell you.’’’
© 2022 ByJoeCapozzi.com All rights reserved.
About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.