RALEIGH (WTVD) --It's a new twist to a rental scam; technology is being used to trick unsuspecting renters out of their money.
You find a place to rent, and when the person claiming to be the owner actually gets you into the home to check it out, you think you're dealing with someone legitimate. But thanks to technology, that is not the case. Instead, unsuspecting renters are losing thousands of dollars to this scam.
HOW TO SPOT A RENTAL SCAM, CLICK HERE
One of those unsuspecting renters was Valerie Thorpe. Recently divorced, with three kids, Valerie was looking for a fresh start. She thought she found that fresh start when she saw a Craigslist ad of a Raleigh home for rent.
"I was looking for a place to stay because my current landlord is selling the place," Valerie said.
Valerie contacted the person who claimed to be the owner.
"He said when you get to the property, give me a call and I will give you the code to get into the lockbox," she said.
Valerie and her youngest son went to the house and there was a lockbox on the front door. While on the phone with the supposed owner, Valerie says he gave her the code to the lockbox. Valerie says the lockbox opened, and she got the key to check out the home.
Valerie watched her son's eyes light up as he walked into what he thought was his new home.
"The house is perfect, what do I need to do? He says I'm going to email you an application," Valerie said.
Valerie says the supposed owner even contacted her landlord to get a reference. She thought she was about to get her dream home so she paid all that she had to secure the house. Valerie wired the first month rent and a security deposit of $1,700 to Darelle T. Williams, who claimed to be the owner. The next day, she went to the house to get the keys, but noticed something was wrong.
"We come and no one was here," she said.
Valerie called the number on the American Homes 4 Rent sign that was in the yard and learned Williams was not the real owner, instead she had been scammed.
"The company said 'well this has happened so many times before.' I said 'well what are you guys are doing about it, to prevent other people from getting scammed? Because if you don't make any changes, it is going to keep happening,'" she said.
Valerie admits she did see the sign when she first looked at the home, but says the supposed owner told her that was just the property management company. As it turns out, the supposed owner Valerie was dealing with was a scammer. American Homes 4 Rent is a legitimate company and the real owner of the home and the property management company. Valerie never learned that until after she had been scammed.
I went to the American Homes 4 Rent website to see just how something like this could happen.
I was able to see homes for rent here in the Triangle and across the country. I clicked on homes I wanted to see in the Raleigh area. The company has a feature on their website called, "Let Yourself In." When you click on this, you are able to get instant access into the homes. I signed up for an account and in order to get inside of the homes, American Homes 4 Rent uses an online lockbox company called, Rently.
On Rently, I did have to enter a credit card number and pay 99 cents to access up to 20 homes. The "let yourself in" feature on the website allows you to get into homes whenever you are ready.
I checked out the homes in Raleigh's Brier Creek community. The first home is valued at close to $900,000.
It was pretty easy to get access into the home. Once at the home, I clicked the "Let Yourself In" button on American Homes 4 Rents' website on my phone so I could enter the property myself. I was then directed to Rently's website where I had to entered my account information. On the lockbox there is a barcode, I typed that barcode in, and within seconds was texted the code to open the lockbox.
Once inside, I was able to check out the 7100 square foot home that includes five bedrooms and a finished basement with a bar. There was no pressure to hurry, I could explore the home at my leisure.
Once I was done, I locked the door and put the key back in the lockbox and checked out of the home on Rently's website.
I then went to this Brier Creek home just down the street that was also listed on American Homes 4 Rent's website.
I went through the same process as before, by clicking the "Let Yourself In" feature on the company's website. I was again instantly texted a code to the lockbox, got the key and went right into the home.
I got to check out this 5600 square foot Raleigh home that includes a huge theater room.
I decided to test how scammers are taking advantage of this easy-access feature with my colleague, Jason Knowles at ABC 7 in Chicago.
I found two homes in Bolingbrook, Ill., which is a suburb of Chicago. I sent Knowles to those homes to see if I could get him access.
While sitting at my desk in Raleigh, I clicked the "Let Yourself In" feature on American Homes 4 Rent's website.
At the home in Illinois, Jason read to me the barcode on the lockbox. I typed in that barcode on Rently's website and within seconds I was texted a code to open the lockbox, which I relayed to Knowles in Illinois.
I was able to give him the lockbox code to get him in the house, as if I owned it myself.
Knowles checked out the home at his leisure. When he was done, he put the key back in the lockbox and went onto the next home.
At this Bolingbrook home, we went through the same process and once again I was texted the lockbox code, and Jason got right into the home. He was able to go right into the home as if he was a potential renter.
Valerie says she feels that this easy access attracts scammers.
"Put security measures in place so people can stop getting scammed," she said.
Even after reporting to American Homes 4 Rent that she had been scammed, she says the company did nothing as she says a rep just hung up on her.
American Homes for Rent didn't respond to my calls or emails.
The company has a "B" rating with BBB, due to 24 complaints ranging on a variety of issues. The BBB has issued an alert on the company.
TO READ MORE ABOUT THE ALERT, CLICK HERE
As for Rently, the online lockbox company, a representative provided this statement:
Rently provides a self showing technology to property managers. Our system allows registered renters to view properties listed on the system without an appointment. Property managers are notified in real time of all activity on the system. Since 2012 we have facilitated over 100,000 leases and over 1,000,000 check ins with very few incidences reported.
Rently takes extensive measures to ensure the security of properties against scammers. At the time of registration when a user and password is created, we text the new prospective renter to beware of scams. We also warn not to share the registration pin with third parties. Additionally, there is a lockbox hanger at each property that warns against wire transfers/fraud that is on the front door. Official manager signage is at the property as well. The signage indicates to the renter who they should be dealing with for leasing activities. Rently also has algorithms that prevent suspicious activity; such as blocking overseas registrations, fake numbers, and fake credit cards. No party other than a qualified manager can add listings to the system. This makes it impossible to add a fraudulent listing via Rently (as can be done on other listings sites). It is our policy to cooperate with local law enforcement to help catch suspected scammers by providing online footprint information.
On the 5 rental properties we went to, we did not find any lockbox hanger warning us about wire transfers/fraud.
As for Valerie, she just hopes no one else has to go through this.
"I really blinked and thought that this was going to be perfect for me and my kids and now I am having to start over with absolutely nothing," she said.
If Valerie doesn't find a place to live, she and her children will be homeless on April 1.
"I lost $1,700 and it's not a lot of money to some people, but I am recently separated with three children, just lost my job," Valerie said.
She's even started a GoFundMe to try to get some of her money back.
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As for the scammer, who went by Darelle T. Williams, Raleigh police are investigating.
Rental scams are common. We told you about a Craigslist scam a few years ago. Click here to read about that scam.
A local woman went to rent a home after seeing an ad on Craigslist. She was not able to get into this home, but did look at the home from the outside. Once she wired the money to the supposed owner, she learned the home was never for rent. It was a fake ad.
The same thing happened to Shanika Tucker. Click here to read her story.
A sure way to protect yourself is to do your research. Verify that the owner is who they say they are before sending money, and always try to pay with a credit card so you can dispute the charge if anything goes wrong. Do not wire money to anyone you don't know. A sure sign that it's a scam is if the supposed owner asks you to wire money out of the country. Also remember, just because you can get inside to see the home that does not mean you are dealing with the real owner.
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