16 News Now Investigates: Hijacked Homes

Published: Aug. 5, 2021 at 7:13 PM EDT
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WNDU) - In a housing market where so many people are looking to buy, sell or rent a home, 16 News Now is digging deeper into a major scam that one South Bend woman faced while selling her home.

16 News Now reporter Carly Miller breaks down the details of this particular scheme, and how to protect yourself from being the next victim of a hijacked home.

Scams come in all shapes and sizes, but when it results in you realizing a family you’ve never met has moved into your empty home or it leaves you without a place to live, the damage done is taken to a whole new level. Now more than ever it’s important to protect you and your home from deceit.

South Bend resident Ashley Arndt put her house on the market earlier this year, and she knew to check on it during the months it sat empty.

“It was more so to make sure that nothing was damaged. Like if a tree limb falls on the roof or something like that. It wasn’t to make sure that people weren’t living there,” Arndt said.

It wasn’t until she was under contract for someone to buy her home in June when things took a turn.

“An electrician showed up to have an estimate done for some work that they wanted done on the house, and there were people living there,” Arndt said.

Arndt learned that a scammer had taken the pictures from the online listing and put them on Craigslist as a rental property. Locks were changed and unknowing tenants moved right in.

“They had been under the impression that they were legitimately renting the home. They had signed a lease,” Arndt said.

A stressful mess for everyone involved.

“I was definitely shocked. I guess I was surprised at how quickly things happened,” Arndt said.

The tenants moved in on a Saturday and were faced with the reality of the situation that next Monday.

“I felt really bad for them because, you know, they were excited to have a nice home for their family. To just have that all taken away, I felt really bad,” Arndt said.

A sad circumstance for both parties.

“They were really upset and embarrassed. They had no desire to be somewhere where they weren’t welcome,” Arndt said.

This doesn’t always prove to be the case, though. After having already paid for rent or a deposit, some tenants may refuse to leave. If Arndt had been faced with this, she would have had to go to court to get the unknowing people evicted.

“For a person to be charged with a crime, they had to have had a state of mind. They had to have known what they were doing was wrong. So in that, what you’re talking about is an innocent renter,” St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter said.

While Cotter hasn’t reviewed reports specific to this case, he was able to provide some general insight.

“On those instances, you’d have two innocent people. Who’s got a better right to that property? I leave that to the court to decide,” Cotter said.

Unfortunately, the Better Business Bureau says rental scams like this one are quite common.

“A lot of scammers who are not domestically based will utilize Google Earth to look for what looks like a for-sale sign or for-rent sign, and they will utilize that property address as their potential targets,” BBB Serving Northern Indiana Communications Director Nichole Thomas said.

Scammers are carrying out these schemes all across the country.

“It’s an instance of people who are doing this over and over again repeatedly, and hopefully by creating that trail, the authorities will be able to track these people down a little more effectively,” South Bend Area REALTORS CEO Myron Larimer said.

When they are caught, these scammers wouldn’t be facing just one charge.

“The person who changed the locks and then they advertised that this is their home and they wanted to sell it, that person would have committed that crime, or potentially. You have taken the property from that owner. That’s that theft. Then, you’ve taken money from another person under false pretenses. That’s also a theft. So we’re looking at two different charges there that a person could be convicted of,” Cotter said.

This raises questions about how to protect yourself from scammers, as a renter, a homeowner or even a realtor.

If renting, be leery of a price that seems too good to be true. If you can’t view the property in-person or through a live, virtual tour, that’s a red flag. Multiple spelling errors in the online listing could also be an indication of a scam.

If you’ve found a place to rent and want to make sure it’s legit, check the property records with the county to help verify that the person you’re dealing with actually owns the property. Getting the rental contract notarized can help confirm a landlord’s identity. Online research like checking the BBB and searching for the same listing can potentially alert you to scams as well.

“Be aware and know that this scam actually happens. I think that’s the biggest thing. A lot of people don’t think that this can happen to them. It can happen to you,” Thomas said.

As a homeowner, you can protect your property by checking on it regularly and letting neighbors know if the property is going to be vacant. You could also work with a property management company that routinely checks on the home.

For realtors, it’s important to have a similar awareness of what’s going on with a property.

“I’ve talked to a couple of realtors where they’ve had an instance of that happening to them on a property that was for sale. All of a sudden they find that somebody is in the property. The locks have been changed and everything by someone who illegitimately rented the property out, and they have to deal with that,” Larimer said.

If something like this were to happen to your property, the first thing you should do is file a police report. Then alert others to the scam. Some ways to do this are letting the platform with the false advertising know what happened, reporting it to resources like the BBB as well as filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

“What can we do as consumers, homeowners, home sellers, renters, what can we do to protect ourselves? Knowing that this scam is happening in your backyard is a good start,” Thomas said.

While many agencies are working to track scammers down, the current housing market is tough, giving them a chance to take advantage of people who feel like they need to jump on a property as soon as they can.

“You still cannot take anything for granted in this market. You still have to do your due diligence and make sure you’re dealing with a legitimate property owner,” Larimer said.

“We just want people to be aware and be safe and hopefully not have the experience we had,” Arndt said.

You can find more information about the resources that the BBB and the South Bend Area REALTORS offer but visiting their websites.

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