March 3, 2018 — When Dora Milner wired her final down payment for a rental in Florentine Estates, she was ecstatic to be moving into a beautiful home in a gated community. Days later, she found herself stranded indefinitely in a hotel and $2,500 poorer.
The rental, it turned out, was not for rent.
Rental scams are reportedly uncommon in the Florence area and victims rarely make face-to-face contact with the perpetrators. Though Milner never met the purported owner of the Florentine Estate house, this alleged scam was given a human face — a supposed real estate agent, who was “a short woman with short, black hair,” according to Milner, was deployed for a meeting.
“They even had us go out and look at [the house], but not on the inside,” said Milner.
When Milner and her friends arrived to view the house, the agent had no business card, gave no name and claimed the house keys were with a lawyer.
Nonetheless, Milner was allowed to tour the house from the outside and peer through windows to confirm the amenities were all there.
Despite not going inside, the house seemed a remarkably better option than others Milner had seen.
“It was a really nice place,” said Milner. “Real nice.”
Milner and her husband, who requested to not be identified for this article, had moved to Florence from Craig, Alaska, in 2012 for job opportunities. They felt the apartment they settled in left something to be desired as rent began increasing.
“Half the time you can’t even use the bathroom because it’s all plugged up,” said Milner. “We didn’t want to spend our money there. They wanted $900 for a junky apartment.”
Two weeks ago, Milner began using local real estate agencies to search for other housing options, but it was on Craigslist that a home for rent in Florentine Estates caught her eye. For $625 a month, including all utilities, the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in a gated community seemed a stroke of good fortune.
Milner emailed the purported owner, who identified his or herself as Lynetta Smith in Hendersonville, Tenn., and Smith arranged a viewing in which the supposed agent met Milner at Florentine Estates’ front gate and escorted her inside by car.
Four days after the viewing, Smith initiated contact by text message to tell Milner that she had been approved, though Milner would learn later that her references had not even been contacted. Elated and eager to move from her apartment, Milner agreed to pay first and last month’s rent, $1,250, to secure the unit and was told she could expect the keys by mail. The nearest location Milner could find to wire the money was Walmart in Eugene and so she made the drive and sent the money.
The next day, Milner took her husband to see their new house but was unable to enter Florentine Estates without the passcode at the front gate. Milner texted Smith for the passcode, but Smith said her lawyer advised another deposit of $1,250 was needed before the passcode or keys could be released — but Milner was assured it would count toward future rent.
Soon after making another drive to a Coos Bay Walmart and another wire transfer, all communication from the supposed owner stopped. Realizing it had been a scam, Milner reported the issue to the Florence Police Department.
Linda Westphal, owner of Action Realty, has been working with Milner and her husband to find a rental since prior to the alleged fraud. Westphal hadn’t heard of this sort of scam occurring in Florence before, but is familiar with the practice.
“From what I hear, all over the nation, it’s pretty common,” Westphal said.
A typical online rental fraud technique involves hijacking a genuine rental or real estate listing by posting the listing’s information on another site — like Craigslist — and simply switching the contact information to the scammer’s own. A fraudulent posting will often entice victims by asking for prices well below similar properties on the market. More sophisticated scammers may even have access to a unit with duplicate keys.
On its website, the Federal Trade Commission lists red flags for rental scams such as: a person asking for wire transfers; owners who claim they are out of the country and requests for security deposits or rent before signing a lease.
Because the supposed agent in Milner’s case had access to Florentine Estates, Westphal speculates they are local and have knowledge of the area.
“I think they’re looking for nice places that are vacant,” she said.
Westphal recommends caution when house shopping on the internet.
“Don’t rent anything from … any kind of internet posting where you’re not going to meet these people in person.” She added, “If it’s too good to be true, it’s not true.”
Officer Denton Tipler of the Florence Police Department, who is investigating Milner’s case, shares the sentiment. Though Milner’s case is the first of its kind Tipler has seen in Florence, he advises people to exercise healthy skepticism on the internet.
“Craigslist is crawling with scams,” he said.
Wire transfers are particularly hard to track, and Tipler has strong advice for those receiving requests to wire money: “Just don’t,” he said.
To avoid scams, Tipler recommends vetting and verifying the identification and credentials of online dealers before doing business with them.
Tipler also encourages victims of fraud like Milner to report cases to their local law enforcement, citing victim embarrassment and silence as obstacles to investigation.
“If people don’t tell us, we don’t know about it,” he said.
Milner said she had initially felt too embarrassed to tell anyone, but eventually worked up the courage to call the police.
“I just don’t want anybody else to go through what I went through,” she said.
Members of the public with information related to such cases in and around the Florence area are encouraged to call the Florence Police Department at 541-997-3515.