Tampa homeowner selling her property finds strangers living inside

Police say rental scams on the rise

TAMPA — A homeowner preparing to sell her property in the Seminole Heights neighborhood found strangers living inside, and those people say someone else rented them the home weeks earlier.

Cassie Martinez says she lived in the home until she had an accident and moved in with her mother in Gibsonton.

They decided to sell the home when property values increased, but when they went to the property to clean it out, they discovered strangers moved in, including two disabled elderly parents and their adult sons.

That family had a lease with Connie Martinez's name on it, one of the actual owners of the home.

"My Granny Ree bought it in the 1930's," said Cassie Martinez, describing the home that has been in her family for multiple generations.

They recently decided to sell it, because she became disabled in an accident and her mother Connie Martinez is preparing to retire. 

"We need this money. We need this sale to go through," Cassie Martinez said.

The closing date was set for August 2, but when they came to clean out the home last weekend, they found an unwelcome surprise.

"I walk into the house and there are two people sitting on a couch watching TV. Some lady was walking around the house making a sandwich," she said. 

Jeremy Norris is the son of the two elderly disabled people who rented the home. 

"What she did was pure evil," he said of the bogus landlord.

Norris said a customer approached his brother at a nearby store where he worked after learning he was looking for a place to rent.

He and his family met the woman at the vacant house, where they signed a lease with the actual owner's name on it and paid her $1,800 in cash.

She said she would collect rent monthly after the family's Social Security checks arrived and gave them a phone number to call if they needed to contact her.

The family described the suspect as a middle-aged white woman, with gray hair and a medium build. They say she was driving a late model Cadillac when she met them at the home.

Norris says they tried to contact her after the real owner showed up.

"The phone's not even on," he said. 

Martinez and her mother had to file eviction papers because they were worried if the renters were still in the home, their real estate deal would fall apart.

Norris says if the family is forced to leave the home now, they'll be out on the streets.

He says his mother suffers COPD and has other conditions.

His father recently underwent multiple back, spine and stomach surgeries. 

Neither will receive a benefits check before the sale date.

"The lady started crying," said Martinez. "And I recognize the hurt. She's a disabled lady."

Martinez hopes they will be able to get help finding a place to stay.

She says she personally reached out to several charitable organizations on their behalf. 

Both the homeowner and the renters say people should use caution before renting a home.

"Check ID's and make sure it matches the name on the lease," Norris said. 

Police say they are seeing an increase in these types of crimes.

They say it's too early in the investigation to have a suspect in this case.

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