Craigslist scam uses picture of Henrico home to mislead tenants

Renters misled by online photos

HENRICO, VA (WWBT) - Fraud detectives with the Henrico County Police Division are investigating after they say someone took photos from short-term rental websites and posted them elsewhere to scam people out of money.

A fraud report was filed March 30 for an incident involving a victim and a home on Lakeside Avenue.

A woman named Joanna said she almost became the victim of this scam when she was looking to rent a home she found on Craigslist in March.

NBC12 legal analyst Steve Benjamin said these scams are happening all over the internet and it's always best to do your research before signing any paperwork or sending any money.

"I saw this beautiful quaint little house," Joanna said.

Having found homes on Craigslist in the past, Joanna thought the beautiful two-bedroom house in Lakeside would work out just fine, so she contacted the person who posted the listing.

“The first thing they said was here is the lease, look it over,” she said.

To Joanna it looked like a professional lease, but Benjamin noticed some problems right away.

“This lease appears to be a cut and paste production by someone who is neither a lawyer nor a real estate professional,” he said. “Anyone familiar with leases would question the origin of this lease, but someone inexperienced with leases could be fooled easily, unless they were to read the whole thing carefully and question what they don't understand.”

Benjamin referenced several paragraphs and phrases in Joanna’s unsigned lease that tipped him off.

“For example, paragraph 17 about pets makes no sense at all. It is gibberish,” he said. “Paragraph 25 does not identify the Commonwealth of Virginia as the state whose laws will control.”

“Once I looked it over, I went to Google Earth,” Joanna said. “I said wait a second, one of those many beautiful images [showed] they have a beautiful back deck.”

But in reality, there is no deck.

Out of respect for the homeowner, NBC12 is not showing photos of the house.

The lack of a deck was a red flag for Joanna. That’s when she went to investigate for herself, driving to the home where she met two other women.

"One was there for an Airbnb and another young lady was sitting in her car with her dog and all of her belongings," Joanna said.

According to Joanna, the young woman told her she had signed a lease agreement to move into the home that same day.

“She explained that she was from out of town and she was out anywhere from $500 to $1,500," Joanna said. “She was dealing with a man named Mike."

Joanna and the young woman compared lease agreements, noticing the landlord's name was different for both of them.

All while this was going on, Joanna said she received a text message from the supposed landlord named John Howard Brown.

“He said how are you doing? I received your email,” Joanna said. “I am still out of town. Do you want to have the deposit sent to me and you will have a walk through when I come back.”

That was another red flag for Joanna - money paid before viewing the home.

Henrico County property records confirm the names on those lease agreements do not match the official owner of the home.

The homeowner said they are aware of the situation and have contacted Henrico Police.

Joanna believes people are stealing photos of homes on short-term rental sites, like Airbnb (where this home is listed), and posting them on other websites like Craigslist in order to get your money.

“I’m really doing this because I was at least able to catch it, but younger people don’t know that this would have happened,” she said.

As of April 11 at 5 p.m., the listing for the home had been flagged for removal by Craigslist. Messages left for Craigslist were not immediately returned.

“The important lesson is that a consumer should always do their own research to determine whether a proposed transaction is legitimate,” Benjamin said.

Currently, short-term rentals like Airbnb are illegal in Henrico County.

Ben Blankinship with the County Planning Commission said Thursday they’ve had several discussions this year trying to change the ordinance. Henrico staff was expected to work on the draft for this new ordinance as recent as Thursday night.

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