Renters and landlords affected by scams on the rise during the pandemic

The Chicago woman’s face is blurred, but her surprised voice can be heard in a viral video showing Cook County sheriff’s deputies executing an eviction order for a small apartment building.

“We just moved here in January,” the woman explains, carrying a few items as she exits the front door. “I gave my fiancé $2,000 to give to the landlord, whoever owns this building.”

But his rent didn’t go to a real landlord, says Matthew White, the bailiff who broke the bad news on behalf of the real owner of the building – a bank – and uploaded the video to TikTok on 3 march to raise public awareness. Crooks had broken into the vacant building, replaced the locks and rented it out before anyone noticed, White says.

To all the horrible things the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked on Chicago, you can add one more: brazen rental scams.

Local housing experts say scams accelerated after pandemic lockdowns began in spring 2020. Vacant properties, including foreclosed apartments and homes, weren’t closely monitored – and criminals pounced.

In a typical scam, fraudsters break into an empty apartment or house, replace the locks and advertise the property online. Potential tenants sign a lease, post a security deposit, and pay monthly rent to the supposed “landlord”, sometimes for months, until the real landlord finds out.

When this happens, the scammer flees and the tenant faces eviction.

White, whose clients include housing attorneys and property management companies, says he comes across the scam “eight to 10” times a week in Chicago and the suburbs.

In one case, a landlord was about to offer a unit for rent when “some people broke in, changed all the locks, and moved someone else in,” White says. “It’s so prevalent.”

Lt. Scott Bailey, a Lansing police detective, says the scammers are looking for foreclosed properties and if they can break into the trunk and get the keys, their next step is to list the place for rent, online, under a fake trade name.

When a victim responds, the apology begins, says Bailey. The supposed owner says he’s out of town, but he’ll email a lease and leave the keys. The unsuspecting new tenants send him their deposit and rent and move in – only to find out later it was a scam.

In a similar scam, fraudsters approach residents of an apartment building claiming to be the new management company. Their goal: to encourage tenants to redirect their rent money to them.

According to JoLondon Jamerson, that’s what happened last fall in the 38-unit apartment building in Chatham where she has lived for 17 years.

Ownership had changed hands and management was in flux. One day, a man walked into the building with papers, claiming it belonged to the new management company and explaining where tenants should send their rent money, Jamerson says. But it was a scam, and many fell for it, she said.

After the economic hardships of the pandemic, “it’s like a slap in the face,” Jamerson says. The scammers, she says, “are so malicious and diabolical that [they] set up and plan a way to cheat people with their money.

JoLondon Jamerson says a scammer hit the building where she lives in Chatham last fall, falsely telling tenants he was the new manager and that they should pay him rent. “It’s like a slap in the face,” she said.

Sam Clendenning, a community organizer with the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, says victims can be devastated financially.

“It’s really upsetting to hear that all that money they’re giving out isn’t going to who they thought it was going to,” he says.

In some cases, a deal can be reached when tenants sign a new real estate lease with the actual landlord, says Chicago attorney Richard Magnone, who represents landlords in court and writes a blog for landlords.

“That would probably be my first piece of advice to my client, ‘Well, you have a tenant if you want one,’ Magnone says. “Working with them to make them a tenant is not a bad idea, because they too are victims.”

Other times, however, tenants do not respond to communications from the real landlord and then the eviction process begins.

Clendenning says creating a citywide rental registry could help prevent scams by giving potential tenants an easy way to determine who actually owns a building.

He adds that landlords should better secure their buildings. Recently, he visited 24 buildings for his job, and all of them had unlocked doors.

“There wasn’t a single building I couldn’t get into,” he said. “These are buildings that are ripe for this kind of scam.”

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