ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A St. Pete couple got caught up in what they describe as a sophisticated rental scam while taking pandemic precautions when searching for a new home.
Laura Mulrooney and Chad Lance had been on the hunt for a two-bedroom home when someone contacted them about a property on 21st Avenue North in St. Petersburg.
“We really just couldn’t believe that we had the opportunity to have the space that we wanted right in the neighborhood we wanted,” said Mulrooney.
They say it wasn’t posted on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace and believed they were speaking with a landlord associated with the rental agency, Main Street Renewal.
“Anyone I talked to said, like the lawyer, just make sure you get to see the house, just make sure you get into the house,” said Lance. “And the guy is like it’s COVID, we do it through Rently.”
Rently has become a popular option for listing agents and renters during the pandemic.
It offers people access to self-guided tours of properties by using a one-time electronic code for gaining entry.
Investigators believe the unknown suspect likely knew about the third-party app and used it to his advantage.
Mulrooney and Lance say the man who identified himself as Clark J. Peterson had first-hand knowledge of the interior of the property while guiding them through their self-guided tour over the phone.
“He told us exactly what doors to lock to make sure the door to this one is locked, make sure the door to this is locked,” said Mulrooney.
Within a day, the couple had been approved and signed what appeared to be a legitimate lease.
“I was scammed,” said Mulrooney. “And I consider myself relatively intelligent and thorough in my research and it happened.”
The listing through Main Street Renewal is $1,800 a month. Mulrooney and Lance were offered to rent the home at about half that price.
They paid $1,400 in the first month’s rent and a security deposit through Zelle before realizing they wouldn’t be getting the keys to their new home.
“Wire transfers are always a little bit harder to track, especially with Zelle, Cash App, and Venmo,” said Det. Bryan Andrews. “And it’s because you can usually create a profile with limited information or even fictitious information so that makes it harder on our end when we go through the subpoena process to try to figure out who the genuine owner is.”
Main Street Renewal has a sign posted on the property’s front window warning about potential scams.
Both Mulrooney and Lance recall the unknown suspect referencing the sign in an effort to throw them off.
“I need more and more people to know because this is a very sophisticated scam,” said Mulrooney.
Main Street Renewal sent ABC Action News the following statement:
"We continue to work to proactively identify possible scammers so appropriate action can be taken to safeguard our current and prospective residents, and our communities. If an individual in one of our homes or attempting to lease one of our homes is affected, we strongly encourage them to contact local authorities to report the incident. We regularly update fraud prevention recommendations posted on our website and urge prospective residents to look for visible signage posted on all of our homes about safety best practices, where to find verified listings and how to spot a rental scam. As a matter of policy, we never advertise on Craigslist or Facebook, and never request payments via PayPal or other apps.
Consumers should never sign a lease unless it has been provided by an official representative of the property management company, for a home clearly listed on that company’s website. We recommend that residents leasing a home be wary of rents listed for a lower price than is typical for the neighborhood, because scammers often create fake listings with significantly low rent amounts. If contacted by a landlord who states that he/she is out of the country, it is likely a scam. Consumers should never wire funds or submit payment via a payment app, and should never distribute personal information such as a social security number or financial information such as bank account numbers. If approached by someone requesting any of this information, consumers should contact the local authorities to report the incident."