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Rental fraud hits home

Randy Lutz, left, son J.J. and girlfriend Contance Young found out two weeks after moving into their Winter Park area home that they were victims of a rental scam. Bank of America, which owned the house, allowed the family to stay in the home, though they lost $1,100 to a fake property management company. Others haven't been as lucky.

Randy Lutz, left, son J.J. and girlfriend Contance Young found out two weeks after moving into their Winter Park area home that they were victims of a rental scam. Bank of America, which owned the house, allowed the family to stay in the home, though they lost $1,100 to a fake property management company. Others haven't been as lucky.

Sarah Wilson

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Local rental property managers Nicholas Musasche, president of the Jander Group, and Lidya Gongage, owner of Kumba Realty & Property Management, offer these tips to help perspective renters avoid falling victim to rental fraud:

• Know your landlord. Use county property appraisers websites, ocpafl.org in Orange County and scpafl.org in Seminole County, to verify the homeowner.

• Check the legitimacy of property management firms on myflorida.com to make sure they are licensed. If they are, check to see that the contact information on the listing for a home matches the firm’s website.

• Never send or transfer money or deposits to someone you’ve never met, or for a property you haven’t seen.

• When touring a property, look for signs of distress. An un-kept lawn, damage to doors, locks or windows, and disconnected utilities should be red flags.

• If a listing seems too good to be true, whether in price or ease of transaction and screening process, it probably is.

It was too easy, Randy Lutz said of his family’s cross-county move from Providence, R.I., to the Winter Park area.

After a 1,200-mile drive, and a brief stay with his brother in Sanford, Lutz, his girlfriend, Contance Young, and their 6-year-old son, J.J., had found the perfect house near Winter Park listed for rent on Craigslist.org in mid-February.

Young said a woman claiming to represent “Sunrise Property Management” gave them a tour of the Hyde Park Drive home, and after agreeing on a price and a date for missing appliances to be replaced, the two signed a lease. Young said she paid the woman $1,100 cash for the first month’s rent and security deposit.

“It was just one of those things — everything was just too easy,” Lutz said. “… But back home you don’t even hear about this sort of crime.”

Less than two weeks after they had moved in, Young said, just as the house was starting to feel like a home — furniture in place, kitchen organized, New England sports paraphernalia hung, and books at home on their shelves — they found out it all was too good to be true.

The house had been foreclosed on and was owned by Bank of America. It wasn’t available to be rented or in any way associated with Sunrise Property Management. In fact, Sunrise Property Management didn’t exist at all.

Seminole County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested Natasha Ortiz, 28, of Winter Park, and David Rivas, 27, of Orlando, on May 3 on charges of burglary, larceny and fraud, according to arrest reports, for allegedly breaking into and falsely renting two homes near Winter Park, including the one in which Young and Lutz were living.

As the couple was working to save the now-fraudulent lease on the home they’d come to love, less than a mile away, neighbors Ray and Carol watched as the house across from them on Dockside Street in Goldenrod went from vacant, to lived in, to vacant again in less than two weeks time.

“All the sudden there were people outside the house, they were cutting the grass, gosh, it was up to here,” Carol said, motioning to her waist-level. “They pressure cleaned it, installed lights — when they told us they were renting we were surprised, we figured they bought it.”

The Izhary Ferrer family living on Dockside was the other victim in Ortiz and Rivas’ alleged rental fraud scam, police said. The pair pocketed $1,600 from Ferrer.

“I remember one day there were little kids out front running around all excited saying, ‘This is my house!’ and then days later they were packing up and gone,” Carol said.

The couple said they thought it was odd that the family was moving in, since they hadn’t seen any ‘For Rent’ signs, or anyone in the house at all, for more than a year. But after having watched house after house around them fall empty and into foreclosure one after another, Ray said they were just happy to see the house occupied.

It wasn’t until the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office knocked on their door that they heard of the scam that moved the family in and out so quickly — Rivas and Ortiz allegedly broke into the home from the back, changed the locks and posted the rental ads on Craigslist.

“During the afternoon with four empty houses surrounding it, and people at work, who’s gonna see? Who knows what they were doing,” Ray said.

Realtors realizing crime

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Investigators say that rental fraud perpetrators broke into two Winter Park area homes and changed locks then signed victims up to bogus lease contracts while pocketing rental fees.

There are 497 foreclosed single-family homes sitting vacant on the market in Seminole County and 2,193 in Orange County as of May 7, according to each counties’ property appraiser’s web site. Until this incident, the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office said it hadn’t had any reported cases like this in recent history.

But local real estate agents say there’s been an obvious link between this type of crime and the housing market crash and increase of foreclosures in Central Florida.

Lidya Gongage, owner of Kumba Realty & Property Management in Winter Springs and member of the Property Management Committee of the Orlando Regional Realtors Association, said she saw it happen at a property she was managing in Windermere.

The night after her rightfully leased tenants moved into the home, two girls showed up at the door asking for the keys to move in. They had wired money to someone who had copied Gongage’s agency’s ad, but changed the contact information and lowered the price. They expected the home to be ready and waiting, only to find out they’d been scammed and were out the money.

“The worse the economy, the worse this type of crime is going to be,” she said.

Nicholas Musasche, president of the Jander Group in Winter Park, said he’s had similar experiences, having up to four people show up at one of the properties he managed in Southwest Orlando saying they had sent money to someone claiming to be the property manager and asking for the keys.

He says variations of this have been happening to him every other month since the housing bubble burst.

“It’s happening far more often than people would think,” he said.

The Orange County Sheriff’s office couldn’t quantify how often these crimes are reported to them, but a public information officer said the department has seen an uptick in rental fraud crimes in the last six to eight months. Representatives from the Winter Park and Oviedo police departments say neither city has a documented record of these crimes, but that it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

“There’s really not much local police departments can do,” Musasche said. “Whether there’s someone holding a gun up to your head and asking for money, or renting you an unrentable house and pocketing the money, it’s just as much a robbery. It’s just not something that they can come upon a scene and arrest someone for.”

In many ways, Lutz and Young say that aside from getting scammed $1,100, they got off pretty lucky. Bank of America, who owned the home, agreed to honor the fake lease they had signed and allowed them to stay in the home, unlike the Ferrer family, who were forced to move out immediately.

“We had a good ending,” Lutz said. “Unfortunately it wasn’t for all parties. … I guess I’d say I’ve learned that if something sounds like it’s too good to be true, it probably is.”