FBI warns rental property scams are on the rise

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LEE COUNTY, Fla. -The FBI said fraudulent advertisements for vacation and rental properties are costing people roughly $92.5 million each year.

Valerie Henry and her family live in France. This summer, they booked a vacation to stay at a waterfront home in Cape Coral. Weeks before the vacation was planned, Henry realized the rental home she had booked on a website called www.ProVacationFinder.com was bogus.

“I sent [wired] the payment Wednesday, but then Monday I realized maybe there’s something not honest,” Henry said with the help of a translator. “Tuesday my friends went to the bank to ask cancellation…It was too late.”

Henry explained she had contacted the so-called property owner through the website. She received an email telling her to wire $3,000 to a bank in London. After wiring that money, she never received a confirmation. She tried to contact the owner, but did not have a phone number.

“We thought we were not going to go on vacation and that was that.”

However, Henry had already bought the plane tickets for her family, so they started searching for a new rental home. While searching online, she came across the same pictures of the Cape Coral home she had already booked, but this time the property owner’s name and number was listed. So, she called the owner, Peter Gillert.

“My first thought was ‘Oh my God’ somebody uses our property’s pictures on the internet for fraudulent purposes, which is not acceptable,” Gillert said. “I really wanted to help this family because they have set aside their money for their vacation. They have paid the money and now the money is lost and they will probably not get it back again.”

Gillert knew the posting Henry booked on was fake because his home was already booked the week she needed. Nonetheless, he tried to help her find a legitimate posting. In the meantime, Gillert contacted Cape Coral police and Call for Action. WINK News had Gillert contact IC3, the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a division of the FBI that investigates online scams.

“Unfortunately my impression is they are helpless in this aspect,” Gillert said.

WINK News Call for Action talked to Special Agent Dave Couvertier with the FBI. He said IC3 has seen an increase in rental scams in the Southwest Florida area.

“Unfortunately as far as trying to resolve these cases to the point the scammer is actually charged and incarcerated for doing what they’re doing is relatively low. Only because there are so many options for criminals today to separate themselves from the crime itself,” Couvertier explained.

He said based on IC3 information collected in 2013, they found victims lost $18.5 million annually in rental scams, but they estimate only 20-percent of cases are reported. Which means victims lose roughly $92.5 million each year.

“Those are some big numbers,” Couvertier said. “I’ve heard victims describe it as being punched in the stomach as that feeling once they find out they’ve been duped. It’s very frustrating.”

However, both Gillert and Couvertier said there are warning signs. In the case of ProVacationFinder.com, the scammers stole all of Gillert’s home’s pictures and information, but the property owner’s name, contact information and the home’s address were not listed.

Couvertier said before you book any properties, make sure you have the owner’s information and talk to him/her before you book. He also recommended you never wire money; instead he said pay with credit card, so you can recoup your money. Finally, he said Google image the property to make sure it actually exists.

If you are a victim of a rental scam or any other online scam, file a complaint with IC3 by clicking here.

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