When a local couple found a Craigslist advertisement for a Dothan rental property, they thought they had found a home for their family-of-four.
It wasn’t until after moving into the home at 111 Timberline Court that they soon discovered through meeting the real property owner that they had fallen victim to a rental scam.
Denise Hauenstein, a local real estate investor, said she closed on the property only two weeks ago and had several appointments lined up to show the house to potential tenants after spending the weekend in North Carolina.
When she and prospective tenants showed up to the house Monday evening, Hauenstein said she was surprised to see a family and their two bulldogs had moved into the home.
“They were shocked. I was shocked,” she said was her initial reaction.
The Bryant family, who had moved into the home earlier that day, was confused after having recently signed a two-page lease agreement and receiving a key fitting the locks in the mail.
The family had found the ad for the house-for-rent on Craigslist with photos and detailed listing information about the home. What they clicked on, however, is considered a hijacked ad in which a scammer steals photos and information about a listing from a legitimate ad – in this case, Zillow – and posts it somewhere else often with a much lower price.
On Zillow, the home was listed for $1,295 a month; it was being advertised for $675 a month on the fraudulent posting.
The Bryants paid the person first month’s rent, a $650 deposit, and a $50 application fee via Cash App, which Angel Bryant didn’t find unusual because that’s how she paid her last landlord who managed property independently.
“We put everything we had into the move,” Bryant said. “So I mean, that’s the sad part… I understand stuff happens but you have to have money to move somewhere else. I was a little bit short for what we needed to move and had to borrow money from my boss. After we found out that we had been scammed, I just thought ‘Oh Lord have mercy, what do I do?”
Bryant said they were forced to move in with her mom in Headland the next morning.
Bryant said on Tuesday that she only had $12 left to her name and is not hopeful that the money she sent will be returned to her.
“My heart just goes out to them. They had no idea,” Hauenstein said, adding that she remains in close contact with the family and is trying to assist them in any way she can.
Hauenstein has contacted Wiregrass 2-1-1 to get the Bryant family needed items and recently organized a Go Fund Me page called "Housing Scammed!" to help the family get back some of what they lost in hopes they can have enough to move into another home.
The Dothan Police Department is investigating the alleged crime, which is now its second active case involving a housing or rental scam.
Dothan Police Sgt. Tim Mullis said these housing scams are becoming more common nationwide, but that Dothan usually only investigates one each year.
The suspects in these cases are difficult to find and “extremely” difficult to prosecute since they usually live out-of-state, according to Mullis.
In this case, the scammer lives in Texas.
“In both cases, the investigation is ongoing,” Mullis said. “We have issued subpoenas and search warrants and have not received that information back yet.”
Bryant said she is embarrassed by falling for the fake advertisement and wants to make others aware of potential scams.
“We work hard for our money, for it to just be taken away especially when you’re trying to make a home for your family… I just hope it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Bryant said.
For more information on rental scams and how to avoid being victimized by one as a potential renter or property owner, visit usa.gov/housing-scams.