The warning caveat emptor is no longer sufficient nor realistic in today’s real estate market.
Latin for ‘let the buyer beware,’ the ancient maxim could be modernized to ‘let the renter beware, and demand to see proof of ownership to boot.”
This week Rachael and Ray Gray are wishing they would have asked many more questions before handing over $2300 in first, last and security deposit on a two-bedroom Pacheco Blvd. rental house, they said.
The couple – desperate to avoid homelessness and wholly trusting that nothing was amiss – paid the advance rent and deposit via money order to a woman who represented herself as the agent for the property owner.
A couple of weeks later, the Grays came home to find the locks changed and a warning, from the real owner, that they would be arrested by the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office for trespassing and squatting at the home, located across from the Shell Refinery in the 2900 block of Pacheco Blvd.
The “agent” was apparently an impostor, and the Grays haven’t seen nor heard from her since.
She’s long gone, say the Grays, along with the family’s entire savings and fake lease.
“We are looking into this case,” said CCCSO spokesperson Jimmy Lee on Wednesday. “It is being treated as a crime.”
The Grays’ misfortune began earlier this year, when the family of two adults, three children and a baby on the way moved into a rental home owned by a distant relative in Bay Point.
The relative forgot to mention that the house was in foreclosure, and soon the Grays were getting eviction notices from a bank.
“Our friends said, just stay in the house, it will take a long time, but that’s not how we want to live,” said Ray Gray on Wednesday afternoon, standing in front of the Pacheco Blvd. home that he and his family will soon have to vacate.
The bank foreclosing on the Bay Point property offered the Grays the “Cash for Keys” program, and the family fulfilled their end of the bargain by quickly vacating.
In between sleeping at Ray’s mother’s home and in the family car, the couple searched for a new available rental. Since they had some minuses as renters – two dogs, three young kids, a past eviction – the Rays had a hard time finding a suitable home until they saw the Pacheco Blvd. house on Craigslist.
“I saw the ad, phoned the number listed and this lady met us at the house. She showed us around, said her name was Linda,” Rachel Gray explained. “She said she worked for a realty company that just purchased the house from an auction. We didn’t question it, we didn’t think to.”
When viewing the home, the Grays noticed a side door that had been kicked in and subsequently boarded up. When they asked about it, “she said that’s why it was urgent to get the house occupied, to prevent further vandalism,” said Rachel. “Now I’m thinking she is the one who kicked [the door] in,” in order to gain access and “rent” the home.
The Grays described the “agent” as a slim, Caucasian blond woman who was professionally dressed. In retrospect, however, the couple remembered that she seemed pretty amped up and talked incessantly.
“She came off like she was on drugs, but we totally just gave her the benefit of the doubt. We signed the lease, we were desperate,” said Rachel. “We basically needed a roof over our heads now. She said we ‘touched her heart.’”
The family moved in, hung up Christmas stockings, decorated the home’s exterior with holiday lights and settled into their new home.
Then came the day when Ray and Rachel arrived home to find a locksmith had changed the locks, ‘no trespassing’ signs had been erected and a new real estate agent left a note warning them that police were on the way.
“We called this new agent and she came and met us. We showed her the lease we signed and the money order copies, but she said we have a few days to get out,” Rachel said. “We called the Martinez Police Department to tell them what was going on … we don’t have anywhere to go and now we don’t have any lump sum. We don’t know what to do.”
MPD Chief Gary Peterson said Wednesday that the case is under investigation and he could not discuss it.
Not the only ones
The Gazette asked City Council member Mark Ross if he – as a local real estate agent – has heard of similar cases of rental fraud. He responded that just last week, he discovered an impostor was attempting to rent one of his properties from overseas.
RCR Property Management listed the residence, a four bedroom, two bath home at 4005 Houston Court in Concord, for rent on various real estate sites.
The ad, reposted on Craigslist, visibly lists the RCR contact information and describes the home as an immaculate Eichler, complete with gardener, for $2,295 per month with a $2,400 deposit.
However, when a house-hunter sent an email to the anonymous email address included on the Craigslist posting, he got a message back from a woman unaffiliated with RCR. Ross asked the Gazette not to reprint any of the names involved in the interaction due to an ongoing investigation into the case. We are reprinting the email message sent by the fake “owner” of the house, just as she wrote it.
“Thanks for your email and interest in our lovely Home. I am [redacted], the owner of the beautiful house you are making inquires of. Actually I and my family resided in the house,and presently we have moved out due to my transfer from my work to Warsaw, Poland. Presently our home is still very much available for rent and utilities are included in the rent. More so, i’m currently in the (West Africa) for an international Christian follower’s crusade which is going to last for about 4 to 6 years. Pls i want you to note that i spent a lot on my property that am offering for rent before moving down here so i will solicit your absolute care and maintenance of our house and want you to treat it as your own,” wrote the con artist.
“The upkeep of the home are all we ask from you and your lovely family and we believe your household members are best to rent our home.I want to have your trust and hope you take good care of my home.”
The “agent” states the monthly rent is $800 and asked for a security deposit of $700. She emailed a tenancy rent application form to the house hunter, which included questions and requests such as “are you a section 8 applicant,” “pictures of applicant,” “personality of pet” and “do you work late at night.”
The impostor continues the email with “Looking forward to hearing from you with all this details so that i can have it in my file in case of issuing the receipt and contacting you. I Await your urgent reply so that we can discuss on how to get the document and the keys to you. please we are giving you all this based on trust and again i will want you to stick to your words,you know that we have not seen yet and only putting everything into Gods hands, so please do not let us down in this our property and God bless you more as you do this.”
The real estate scammer signs off with a cell phone number and the promise that the Concord house is available for a four-year lease.
Ross stresses to all potential renters to assert themselves and freely probe property agents or owners.
“It seems to be a growing new facet of rental scams on the Internet,” said Ross. “I would only deal with someone in person, at the property in question. And it’s not impolite to ask for a copy of the county records showing ownership. Most lessors would respect your diligence if asked respectfully, much as a lessor asks you to respectfully fill out an application. Again, being at the unit, with a live person, can overcome a lot, but not all, of the risk.”
Another local rental fraud case
Also on Wednesday, MPD Lieutenant Jon Sylvia confirmed that officers had written up a criminal report on another rental fraud case in Martinez this week.
This time it concerned a home in the 4000 block of Shadowfalls Drive, a tidy and sizable home that sports an Alain Pinel Realty for sale sign.
MPD Chief Gary Peterson said he couldn’t discuss open investigation because such information “might jeopardize the case,” although Sylvia explained that “the victim and the true owners worked it out between them,” said Sylvia. “This has been occurring throughout the Bay Area.”
Sylvia, who said he was not specifically referring to the Shadowfalls Drive case, did offer some tips to potential renters, including “check with the county to determine who owns the property; rent property through a reputable management company; do not give the person cash; get good identification from the person they are renting from; talk to the neighbors about problems in the area or if the neighbor knows who owns the property; if the rental price is too good to be true, then maybe it is,” and finally, “Google the address and there might be information showing it is for sale.”
Knowledge is power
The California Department of Real Estate, a state agency, has published a consumer alert entitled “Beware of Impostor Landlords,” which describes this growing crime.
The agency also suggest victims of such scams call the Oakland DRE office for further assistance at 510-622-2552. The consumer alert can be found at www.dre.ca.gov/pdf_docs/ca/ConsumerAlert_WarningOnRentScam11_2010.pdf.
After the Gazette learned of the Grays’ plight via a concerned neighbor, Rachael Ray said Wednesday she wanted to speak out “so it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
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