No home for the holiday: local family scammed, forced out of their house

Published: Dec. 13, 2022 at 10:24 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 14, 2022 at 5:25 AM CST
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - All one local mom wanted for the holidays was a home to call their own.

But only after she and her kids moved into a dream house did she learn, she was scammed and they were instead, being tossed in the cold.

“I thought it was a beautiful home, I thought it was really nice house,” said single mom Mia Dougherty.

She’d been saving up for a rental home and found one in Florissant on Zillow.

She sent a message and got a text from someone claiming to be the owner.

Using an app, she got a code for the lock on the door and was even able to take a tour.

Immediately, my daughter was super excited when she was like mom, this is my room.

She signed a lease and paid fees through an app.

“Total, with everything, I am out about 3500 maybe 4,000 dollars,” said Dougherty.

After they moved in, a woman showed up and handed Dougherty a letter.

“She’s like, ‘I don’t know how you got in this house, you have to leave now, you have to leave by Friday,’” said Dougherty. “My stomach just turned in knots, I could have collapsed, I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of her mouth.”

Dougherty learned she had paid a scammer only posing as the owner.

“I was devastated. I was heartbroken,” she said.

Her daughter’s dreams of a room of her own are now gone. They are unable to unpack their Christmas tree or even set up the whole house.

Sarah Wetzel with the BBB says Dougherty is far from alone.

Last year, they received 500 calls for rental scams and 450 so far this year.

“Scammers have become more sophisticated with their tactics. They are keeping up with the technology and what they can get by with, they look so legitimate, they look so real and that’s what is so scary,” said Wetzel.

Wetzel says there are often red flags.

For instance, Dougherty was told she was getting a $750 dollar discount off the listed rent.

“If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” Wetzel said.

The scammer, of course, has disappeared. The number he used to call her is now disconnected.

But while it’s a sad story we have heard before, this one comes with a twist.

The company that actually owns the home also has issues of its own.

It’s called Progress Residential, based out of Arizona.

According to our research, they now manage dozens of homes owned by LLCs in our area.

They have a one-star review with the BBB, which also has an alert out on the company — for a pattern of complaints from renters.

“It’s not even bad reviews, it’s nightmare reviews that I am seeing,” she said.

She says Progress Residential’s remote unlock and “show yourself in” self-tour feature makes their properties ripe for fraud.

“Internally they are not doing enough,” said Dougherty.

News 4 signed up for a tour and sure enough, we never spoke with a person face-to-face or on the phone.

But we were given a code to tour a home in Ballwin.

Inside, there is a big sticker to be aware of fraud. That’s something Dougherty says wasn’t inside the Florissant home she rented.

We wanted an interview with Progress Residential.

Instead, a representative sent a statement:

“While we don’t comment on specific cases, we make every effort to support these victims of rental fraud by providing an opportunity to directly work with Progress staff to apply for and rent the home they want.”

Dougherty said she did that. They took more money from her and then denied her application.

“I cannot imagine how many families are going through the same trauma and devastation,” she said.

Left with no choice but to move out and with little money left, she’s at a loss.

“I don’t know what’s next, I don’t know what’s to come,” Dougherty said.

Dougherty has filed a police report but is not hopeful she’ll get her money back.

She has set up a GoFundMe for the money is out. You can find that, here: https://gofund.me/603ca9c4

Progress Residential ultimately did pay about $800 to help her move out and back into a place in St. Louis City.

They said they have tips on their website to avoid fraud.

You can find that, here: https://rentprogress.com/watch-out-for-scams/

The BBB also has more information on how to educate yourself and your family members.

Common red flags in an apartment rental scam include:

· Requests to provide prepaid gift card information or wire funds.

· Typos and grammatical or other errors during discussion or in the ad.

· Requests for your bank account number, Social Security number or a code sent to your cell phone.

· The email address used by the person who posted the listing does not sound like a person’s name. That may indicate an auto-generated email account, preferred because they are difficult to trace.

· The “seller” isn’t willing to reveal the house’s address until you reply to their ad or fill out a “free credit report” designed to steal personal information.

· You cannot inspect the property prior to making a decision.

· The rent is much lower than similar properties in the area.

· The owner is located out of state or in another country and may instruct targets to send money overseas in order to secure the home.

· An identical ad is listed in other cities.

BBB recommends the following when searching for housing rentals:

· Research the property and its owner. Look for the owner’s name, phone number and email address online. Ask to inspect the property before making a decision. Check property records via the local assessor’s office to determine if the person actually owns the property.

· See the property in person or ask someone you trust to check it out. Don’t send money to someone you don’t know for an apartment you haven’t seen.

· Understand your responsibilities and rights. Read the lease carefully before signing and discuss any unclear points with the landlord. The lease should tell you how much your rent will be, for what period of time and what maintenance services your landlord provides.

· If a security deposit is required, find out before you sign the lease what it covers and the conditions for a refund. Make a list of any damages present when you move in and again when you move out to compare with the landlord’s list.

Check out a company’s BBB Business Profile, register a complaint or post a review at BBB.org. Report any scams to BBB Scam Tracker.