Rental scams becoming more widespread in Tampa Bay | #socialmedia


PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Scammers have become more sophisticated at stealing your hard-earned cash and they’re taking advantage of the red-hot real estate market in Tampa Bay to do it.

The Better Business Bureau said rental scams are among the most reported scams to the BBB and more than 5 million Americans have lost money tied to rental scams.

Karey Whitfield found herself recently caught up in a real estate scam that was more sophisticated than many others reported to BBB leaders. Whitfield found herself in a desperate hunt for housing after her landlord told her that he plans to sell the Palm Harbor home she and her family have lived in for years.

“I knew with the real estate wars right now that it was going to affect us heavily. There is no place in our community that we have lived in for 15 years to live anymore because the prices are so high,” Whitfield explained. “So when something comes along that you think ‘oh that’s the one,’ you kind of go for it and that’s what I did.

Her friend stumbled upon a rental listing on a community Facebook page called, “I love Clearwater.” Whitfield and the woman exchanged emails. Then, the woman offered to meet her in person at a home on Magnolia Drive in Clearwater. The woman had keys to the home and let Whitfield in.

“She opened the door, we looked around the house and I said ‘Oh my gosh. This is perfect’,” Whitfield recalled.

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Karey Whitfield lost money to a rental scammer but helped police arrest the scammer.

Then, the woman made a better offer. She told Whitfield she had a bigger home on Belcher Road available for the same price. She also had keys and showed her around.

“It was a little older but roomier. It even had a pool. I was like yes!” Whitfield added.

Whitfield signed a lease then gave a $1,800 deposit and took the keys. As a notary, she knew to take pictures of everything including the woman’s ID, the lease, the receipt for the deposit etc.

“Everything seemed kosher. There was nothing in my head that said, ‘Hey Karey slow down, maybe this isn’t right,’” she explained.

Lease Karey Whitfield signed

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A copy of the lease Karey Whitfield signed with a person who turned out to be a rental scammer.

That night, Whitfield gathered up her husband and daughter and couldn’t wait to surprise them by showing them the home. Yet, when they returned to the home; they found a contractor who told them the house had just sold and wasn’t on the rental market.

“My heart sunk. I had my hopes so high, and then it’s crushing. It is so crushing,” Whitfield said through tears.

Investigators with Clearwater Police Department were able to use all of Whitfield’s evidence to make an arrest. It turns out, the scammer’s driver’s license was real.

These types of scams are popping up often. Before Whitfield signed what she thought was the lease for the home on Belcher; she looked at another house listed on Craiglist for rent.

While checking out the property on Emerald Lane in person; she ran into a friend of Laurel Hubbard who was helping Hubbard’s son move into the home. Hubbard had just purchased the home for her son and his family. Around the same time Hubbard bought the home, a scammer listed it on Craiglist for rent at a fraction of the cost.

“They basically took all the pictures off Zillow, and put them on Craigslist,” Hubbard said.

Laurel Hubbard

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Laurel Hubbard bought a home in Largo that was also listed fraudulently on Craigslist.

Hubbard started digging and found ad after ad on sites like Craigslist and Offer Up for phony rental listings.

“I saw listings for $660 and they show this mansion-looking thing. A 5-bedroom, 3-bath home. There’s no way you’re finding that now in this market,” she said.

Within a few weeks, Hubbard said she has flagged close to 500 fake listings that were offering too-good-to-be-true offers.

“95 percent of the listings that I looked at we’re not real,” Hubbard said.

The Better Business Bureau said rental scams are one of the top scams nationwide, with more than 5 million Americans duped out of money.

“A little bit of homework can go a long way; in this case just seeing if that property really is legit and is really up for rent,” explained Bryan Oglesby of the BBB.

Experts said you’re the safest vetting a property before even starting a conversation. You can look it up on the Property Appraiser’s website in the county where the home is located. You can also use a reverse image Google search. Lastly, research the person offering the property for rent.

Signs of a rental scam

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Anna Marie Millett works as an investigator for the Pinellas County Consumer Protection Division.  She told ABC Action News as soon as you see a listing or find a listing that you’re interested in, search the address on google.

“If you’re seeing multiple listings for the same property; that’s usually a red flag that it’s a scam. They’ve taken those photos and that information and changed the contact information. If you’re seeing a listing that the same property is for sale and also for rent, that can be a red flag as well,” she added.

The BBB also suggested staying on protected rental sites instead of social media platforms.

Clearwater Police Officers were able to return most of Whitfield’s money, but she and her family are still searching for their next place to call home and working to recover from the emotional toll caused by a sophisticated scammer.

“It’s so painful. I know it sounds very simple and it’s just money and it’s just her showing some houses and being fraudulent, but this is my family and we need a place to live and we’re not going to be able to get it. It hurts,” Whitfield said while wiping tears as they streamed down her face.

ABC Action News also reached out to the Attorney General’s Office and sites like Craigslist to find out what more they can do to deter rental scams. Yet, the Better Business Bureau said scammers are always finding ways to work around the system. That’s why they stressed being scam savvy and doing your research before signing any paperwork.

If you think you’ve provided personal information to a scammer, you should contact the Federal Trade Commission right away to avoid identity theft.

You can also read more about the BBB and their research into rental scams here:





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