In July, Sean was looking for an apartment in the Bay Area for his first semester of grad school at UC Berkeley. He connected with someone on a housing Facebook group who sent him what appeared to be a legitimate lease. He inked the deal, wired over the security deposit, and heaved a sigh of relief.
But then, a few days after agreeing to the terms, the alleged landlord deleted her Facebook account. Fearing the worst, he made a phone call to the building his new apartment was supposed to be in. They gave him the bad news — the unit didn’t exist. He had just been scammed in the middle of a pandemic.
There are so many stories of people like Sean. This is the reality for Americans who are renewing a lease or moving across the country or facing mounting rent payments despite a nationwide unemployment spike. The American epidemic has caused wide-ranging suspensions of in-person open houses, which, as the FBI warned last month, has spurred a boom in predatory leasing deceit. According to their data, there’s been a 100 percent increase in reported scamming incidents compared to last year. “Before, people would say, ‘Okay, can I really fall for [these scams] without seeing the [rental] property first?’ But now, there is a reason. ‘I can’t show you the rental property because of the virus,’” said Tammy Sorrento, a private investigator in Florida, speaking to Fox News. “And people have fallen for that because it’s a very legitimate excuse.”
These scams are happening as the ongoing Covid-19 crisis has sparked a new housing crisis in America. Every state legislature in the country adopted some sort of eviction moratorium at the start of the pandemic, with the hope that citizens would be back to work and reacquainted with some semblance of normalcy by summer. That hasn’t happened. The US is in the midst of a coronavirus surge, and as CNBC reported, evictions have resumed in more than 30 states. According to financial journal Stout, nearly two out of five renters are at risk of being served papers in the months ahead, which could create an unprecedented housing crisis. It will likely get worse before it gets better.
Simply put, there’s never been a worse time to deal with housing stresses. An untold number of people have been put in an awkward position by leasing companies during the pandemic. We spoke to three of them, all in vastly different situations, as Covid-19 continues to alter the world as we know it. (Only first names will be used to preserve people’s anonymity.)
“If we weren’t in a pandemic … I could’ve seen all these places up close, and I wouldn’t have been scammed.”
Sean, San Francisco
I certainly wouldn’t have chosen to move during a pandemic, but I got into grad school across the country at UC Berkeley. At the time, I lived in Brooklyn, and I wanted to get closer to campus, and I had to make do with what I had without seeing my options in person. A lot of landlords were just sending me over videos of the places they had for lease. Some of them actually create these “dollhouses,” which are like three-dimensional models of the unit. Those are very strange. Not an ideal situation to get a real sense of a place, to say the least.
It’s really hard to pull the trigger on a lease completely sight unseen. I tried to check all the boxes as best I could. There were many hours spent going back and forth between the landlords with the property and me, where I just asked as many questions as I possibly could. Clearly, my efforts fell short, because I got scammed shortly into my search.
Here’s how it happened. I responded to an ad on a Facebook group for housing in the Bay Area, which was already a less secure pathway than more formalized real estate options. I started talking to a woman with a unit — she sent over some videos from a very real building, and I liked what I saw. It was nice, but it wasn’t too nice, you know? It seemed authentic. Eventually she sent over a lease, I looked through it and thought it was legit, so I signed it and wired her the security deposit and first month’s rent. I canceled all my other appointments. It was a huge relief.
Then shortly afterward, she got in contact with me saying, “I’ve been in a horrible accident. I need you to pay the first two months of rent upfront.” That sounded really fake to me. So I called the building that the place was allegedly in, and they told me that it didn’t even have an available unit in it. I felt like an idiot. I should’ve done that as soon as I started corresponding with that person. She deleted her Facebook. I reported her to the FBI, but I haven’t gotten my money back.
If we weren’t in a pandemic, I absolutely would have booked a trip out to the Bay to look at places in person. I could’ve seen all these places up close, and I wouldn’t have been scammed. But for now, as so many in-person viewings are on hold, a lot of people like me can be targeted.
“It’s so hard to find an apartment right now. I don’t have any paystubs. I don’t know where I’m going to go or what my next job is going to be.”
Sada, New Orleans
I was officially furloughed from my job at a hotel on March 19. Prior to that, I had my hours cut for about two weeks. After that, I realized that this was serious and we weren’t going to go back to work for a long time. I reached out to my landlord and told them that I was still waiting on unemployment, and I wasn’t going to be able to make rent for the foreseeable future. I didn’t get a response for two or three weeks, when they started harassing me.
They told me that I turned in my keys to them and moved out of the place. That was a lie. Then they said I broke back into my apartment because the door was damaged. That was also a lie. The apartment had been broken into during Mardi Gras back in February — I filed a police report and everything — but nobody came to fix [the door]. They were just using it as an excuse. By April, he had his maintenance workers flip my breaker to turn off the power, and a few days later they cut my air conditioner. It made me feel really anxious because I didn’t know what was going on. This is New Orleans in spring. It’s pretty hot down here.
Evictions were frozen in Louisiana, but on June 25, landlords could start kicking people out for reasons that didn’t have to do with rent payment. So, for drugs, noise complaints, and things like that. They used that on me — the claim that I vacated the apartment and broke my way back in. Which, again, wasn’t true.
We ended up going to court and I won my case. I provided enough evidence that proved that his information was false. I remember that, at one point during the trial, the landlord told the judge that I had turned in my keys. The leasing company uses its own key that you can’t buy out of the store, but in October, I had some issues unlocking the door, so I got a replacement from the super. The landlord was like, “See, that’s not the type of key we give out when someone starts a lease.” I said, “I know it’s not the kind of key you give out! I got this key from the maintenance man!” He ended up implicating himself. We filed a motion to get the A/C fixed too. We haven’t heard anything about that yet.
My lease is up in August, and I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do yet. It’s so hard to find an apartment right now. I don’t have any paystubs. I don’t know where I’m going to go, or what my next job is going to be. I always knew that there were bad people in the world, but it’s always shocking when you’re actually victimized by them. It’s like, “Wow, you people actually exist!” Some people just don’t care.
“[The landlord] tried to passive-aggressively push us out through minor inconveniences.”
I was living on the Big Island in Hawaii working for my wedding photography business. The lease in the place we were living in for a year was about to be up, and the property had just changed hands to a new owner. He said we were fine, and we could stay in the place for at least another six months, but he was eventually going to use it to house his daughter. My husband and I were happy with that. We just had our third kid at the beginning of the year, so we weren’t really planning on moving.
So, right after Hawaii shut down, I was really surprised to receive an email from him saying that he needed us to vacate the property in 45 days. His daughter had a Jeep rental business, which was decimated by the complete lack of tourism to the islands. I didn’t really know what my options were. I could try and stay there — maybe we could go to court or something — or we could find some other place.
He tried to passive-aggressively push us out through minor inconveniences. Like, here we are, on a lockdown where nobody can leave the house, and he’s hiring construction workers to come work on the roof. I was stuck inside with a bunch of kids in lockdown, with this constant banging around the house. It was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever gone through.
But I didn’t really know where I stood legally. So we started looking around for places, but what I’ve found is that the Big Island is catered to the Airbnb market. It’s really hard to find a rental. My business slowed down considerably. So as we were calling around, the first question we heard was, “How many people are going to be living here?” I said, “Oh me, my husband, and my kids,” and they kept turning us down. They said they couldn’t accommodate that many people. We did find a couple rentals we liked, but the landlords said, basically, that once tourism opened back up, we would be homeless again.
So, we decided to move back home to stay with some family in Wyoming at the beginning of May. We’re still trying to figure it all out. There’s a lot of open space here, and not a lot of people around, but everyone’s mindset around Covid here is weird. Not a lot of people wear masks. That was different in Hawaii, the sanitation there was top notch. For now, we’re just laying low and exploring the outdoors. There are worse ways to ride this thing out.
Will you become our 20,000th supporter? When the economy took a downturn in the spring and we started asking readers for financial contributions, we weren’t sure how it would go. Today, we’re humbled to say that nearly 20,000 people have chipped in. The reason is both lovely and surprising: Readers told us that they contribute both because they value explanation and because they value that other people can access it, too. We have always believed that explanatory journalism is vital for a functioning democracy. That’s never been more important than today, during a public health crisis, racial justice protests, a recession, and a presidential election. But our distinctive explanatory journalism is expensive, and advertising alone won’t let us keep creating it at the quality and volume this moment requires. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will help keep Vox free for all. Contribute today from as little as $3.
Get your CompTIA A+, Network+ White Hat-Hacker, Certified Web Intelligence Analyst and more starting at $35 a month. Click here for more details.