TAMPA, Fla. — You'll want to be extra alert as you pay next month's rent because thieves are targeting rent drop boxes around Florida.
The details ABC Action News exclusively discovered in a search warrant indicate it may be a good idea to take your rent payments directly to the office staff and avoid the rent drop boxes.
According to a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office search warrant, at least two apartment complexes were hit this May by thieves using wire reels or wire hangers and glue to 'fish out' money orders from rent drop boxes. The criminals can then use brake fluid or acetone to alter the payee information to the name of a criminal associate.
The warrant indicates that between November 2017 and July 2018 there have been at least 25 additional cases of rent drop box thefts in the county.
Minerva Rivera knows the crime too well. A year ago someone swiped her money order and today she's still struggling.
“For them it’s happy money and for us it’s struggle money," said Rivera.
On May 6, a manager at the Cinnamon Cove Apartment Complex noticed the drop box was sticky. The leasing office has previously been burglarized, according to the search warrant. The manager accessed cameras and saw an offender attempting to fish out the rent payments.
Since their previous burglaries back in January of 2018, the complex installed a metal plate on the interior of the slot to make such thefts more difficult. It paid off, according to the warrant, because the thieves weren't able to take any payments.
However, nearby at the RainTree Oaks the criminals were successful. On May 8, HCSO learned of another rent drop box theft. The office issued late payment notices to two residents. When the tenants came in to complain, management accessed surveillance footage and found the criminals removing two money orders on May 4.
HCSO says it happened 20 minutes after the attempted theft at the Cinnamon Cove apartments.
"It’s crazy! Rent is too expensive to be stolen," said Mary Taylor, a tenant at the RainTree Oaks. “I think it’s safe when you put it in the box in that little small box.”
Since then, the complex has closed down the rent drop box slot.
Back in 2017 there was a large spike of such thefts in Pinellas County, leaving tenants late on rent at no fault of their own.
Even more concerning is that these types of thefts are a growing problem throughout the state. Right now, there are statewide investigations into at least 60 known rent drop box thieves.
“I would have really cried,” said Taylor. "Especially because we are fixed income, we can’t afford to be losing money like that.”
We reached out to our ABC Action News legal expert, Jeffrey Swartz, and asked him if tenants are obligated to pay rent again if it's stolen out of the drop box. He says it's not a simple issue and a tenant may have to pay rent again in order to avoid eviction.
"If the prescribed method of delivery is a drop box provided by the landlord and you as the tenant do as you are told, the security of the box falls on the landlord. Payment is made upon delivery." Swartz told us.
However, the tenant's word may not be sufficient. Swartz says the real problem comes into play in proving that you actually placed the payment in the box. He tells us the tenant will have to do research to find the receipt to establish that they, in fact, did deliver the payment. Bottom-line, you may have to pay again until things are settled with the landlord or with a court.
Rivera is warning other tenants to do their due diligence and avoid the rent drop box. She believes only one type of person would do something like this.
"A horrible person, a horrible person that don't have a heart," she said.