3OYS: Clever rental scam bilking people out of thousands of dollars

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX -- Esther Shaker's life seems to be on hold and stuffed inside storage all because of a scam.

"This is more inside house stuff and stuff from the garage," Shaker said as she pointed out items at a storage facility.

The scam started when Shaker showed up to look at a vacant home for rent in Chandler. It was a home she found on the Internet.

"Well, I wanted a rental that was well-kept, that had a nice yard, little upkeep in the front yard, and had 3 bedrooms," she said.

According to Shaker, the owner of the house initially told her to go take a look at the property and that someone would be there to let her inside.

When she arrived, a person was already showing the home to another couple, which meant Shaker was going to have competition for the property.

"It made me nervous that somebody was already looking at the house, so I thought I need to hurry on this; I really want this house," she said.

Not wanting to miss out on the house, Shaker contacted the owner over the phone and said she would take the house. The only problem was that the owner claimed to live in Georgia. However, he was willing to go ahead with the deal if she would send his secretary $2,400 as a security deposit.

The owner indicated his career keeps him busy and that his secretary, Mariah Fletcher, would help out. So, Shaker got a cashier's check for $2,400 and overnighted the check to Fletcher at the address the owner provided. However, it's the last time Shaker would ever hear from him or that secretary.

"I was so excited about it, I didn't even really think about the address difference," Shaker told 3 On Your Side. "I just figured, you know, he's from Georgia, she's in Georgia. He said he works all the time so she would take care of it."

3 On Your Side got involved and discovered the house Shaker looked at really is for rent. However, the person she sent that check to in Georgia has nothing to do with the home whatsoever.

We looked into the matter further and discovered that the scammer not only took the time to find the rental property, but he also used the county assessor's page and other public websites to determine who owned the home.

After determining the legitimate owner's name, he used that very name to create a Yahoo email address. The email with the owner's name seemed very convincing to Shaker and probably others.

3 On Your Side also went to the house with Shaker and after inspecting the property with her, we discovered the back door was unlocked. We opened the door, but quickly closed it. However, the unlocked door revealed something significant: apparently, the scammer has an accomplice who enters through the unlocked door and waits inside to show the home to interested people like Shaker.

3 On Your Side contacted the home's real owner, who was surprised to hear his house was being used to dupe people. He also said he was going to change the locks to prevent the scam from continuing. After all, there's no telling how many other lookers like Shaker got taken for $2,400.

3 On Your Side attempted to reach the police department in the small Georgia town where Shaker sent the check. However, despite our repeated attempts, no one ever contacted us.

As for Shaker, she's disgusted with situation. Her life is in storage until she finds somewhere else to live, and she's also out $2,400.

"I want to get the word out there that this can happen to anybody, you know, and I don't want it to. It's been a lot to take. It's been very stressful," she said.