Augusta Business Daily

Tue, November 28, 2023

Real Talk Real Estate: Rental Fraud: A True Story

Hi, Augusta Business Daily! My name is Leanna Woodward, yes Woodward, you read that right. I am the daughter of your favorite CSRA realtor and the usual writer of this column, Shawna Woodward. My mom asked me to write this article because I am a living, breathing cautionary tale about rental fraud.

My mom told me, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” and man, was she right. The rental market has been a nightmare here in Savannah, especially being as young and inexperienced as I am. But, I should have listened to her advice, and my gut, when trying to find a new place to rent. This story is entirely true and I hope in telling you this, you will learn from my mistakes.

Upon first moving out of the dorms my sophomore year, I moved into a beautiful historic house in the heart of Downtown Savannah. This house had recently been renovated, aka it got the landlord special. After a few months of living there, the house began to fall apart right in front of my eyes. This house was built around 1900, and I assumed the renovations fixed the dated bones of the house – naivety number one. While this wasn’t a huge concern for me, as a college student who was rarely home, it really became an issue when none of my maintenance requests were being answered.

Next thing I knew, a man was at my front door telling me the house had been foreclosed on, and me and my roommates had very little time to get out. I tried to reach out to my landlord to no avail and the property manager said they had no idea what was going on, and then eventually ghosted me and my two roommates. People continually stopped by looking at the house, as it was up for foreclosure, until eventually, a realtor representing the new owner, gave us the real rundown. It became very clear at that moment that we HAD to move, and quickly.

So, with three months to find a new place, in an already hectic Downtown Savannah environment, I introduce naivety number two. I found a lovely apartment complex in Midtown. I went in for a tour where they showed me a staged unit. Since I was in such a hurry, I asked how likely it would be for me to get the ball rolling on an apartment as it was in my budget, a good area and the leasing agent seemed nice enough. They were ecstatic and helpful and I filled out an application and paid an administrative fee, a very expensive administrative fee at that. I was promised that if I fully filled out the application 48 hours after touring, I would be reimbursed all fees. So, as any broke college student would, I did! But, I wasn’t allowed to tour what would be my unit. I was told it would be ready about a week before I was supposed to be out of my recently foreclosed living space.

Once it finally got to my move-in date, I got radio silence from the apartment complex. Long story short, my apartment was delayed over and over again and even after calling multiple times to say I wouldn’t be moving in, they still had me as a resident. The strange thing is, I never even signed a lease. All I did was apply, but then it got worse.

The complex underwent new management and somehow didn’t have it down that I had paid the application and administrative fees. They then kept sending me collections notices and it was absolutely impossible to get anyone on the phone or to truly resolve the issue. Turns out, if you leave a scathing review on Google, your issues will be tended to extremely quickly! With only a day left before the “unpaid” fees would be sent to collections, I finally got some adequate help and had my original transactions verified and the collections harassment canceled.

Now, we get to the really juicy stuff, also known as naivety number three and undoubtedly the worst one. After my fiasco with the apartment complex, I was stuck with a week to find a new home, which made me desperate. This is when I took my mother’s advice for granted. I saw a listing on Zillow for a house right near the iconic Forsyth Park for an incredible price. I communicated with the so-called owner the night I saw the listing and went to meet him and tour it the very next morning. This is where I majorly messed up. I liked the house well enough, it had everything I would need and was in an incredible location for a truly unbelievable price. Once the tour concluded, the man showing me the house urgently wanted to rent to me without doing any applications, or any background or credit checks and just emailed me the lease to sign on the spot.

Now I know, you, whoever you are, reading this is thinking, “This girl is dumb,” and you may be right, but I’m also a twenty-year-old college student who needed housing and fast! I did the dumb thing and I signed the lease electronically, without reading it and without the funds to pay for the first month. So, because of my lack of funds, I called your favorite realtor and my favorite mom to tell her how I needed money, so I could have somewhere to live. After assessing the situation, she said no, obviously, and then we had an extensive conversation about rental fraud. Come to find out, after some very light googling, I learned this man was not a licensed realtor, nor the owner of the house he showed me, he had also been arrested multiple times and had a sex trafficking charge against him!

Luckily, the lease was not valid, duh, and I filed a police report. My mom and I both took some scary text threats from this guy and we were ready to take legal action.

Eventually, he realized his scam wasn’t going to work this time and he gave up. This is all crazy scary, but it’s also crazy true. Luckily, I moved out of downtown and found a wonderful apartment for a reasonable price in an awesome area.

So… I’ve found they’re not all bad, and you can find something that will work for you if you take a deep breath and exercise some caution.

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