HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — Local realtors say they're seeing a spike in fake rental ads and the pandemic may be to blame.
Flo Holder, like so many during the pandemic, is doing most of her financial transactions online.
The 63-year-old found an east Tampa home for rent on a popular website for rental houses. Because of the pandemic and her underlying health issues, Flo was happy she could fill out an application and submit a deposit without having to come into contact with anyone.
Flo says she used a payment app to send a $600 deposit. Flo said the pictures on the ad appeared professional. Her new landlord was easy to reach by phone.
“All he needs is the money, and my keys will be there the next day,” she said.
But when the payment app refused to process the transaction for the deposit, Flo became suspicious. So she drove to what she thought would be her new home. There she discovered the house was not for rent and it had just been sold.
ABC Action News called the real estate broker who sold the home. The agent said that after realizing con artists used pictures of the house for a fake online ad, she posted a notice in the window telling people the home was not for rent.
Hillsborough County's Consumer Protection Manager Eric Olsen says fake rental ads are convincing and, in some cases, people lose all the money they had for a place to stay.
"If they are paying in cash, in a money order or making a payment with something that can't be traced, it is difficult to find where the money went,” he said.
Flo is lucky she didn't lose her money, but the fake ad left her homeless for now.
“I had to put my stuff in storage,” she said. “I am staying with my daughter until I can find a place.”
Before renting any home, look for red flags such as below market prices and avoid requests for payments that are not traceable. Ask to meet the landlord in person and, if possible, speak with neighbors who may be able to give you information on the property.