ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. (KMOV.com) -- A local healthcare worker lost all her money in a terrifying scam that left her without a place to live.
She moved into a rental home, thinking she had a legitimate lease, only to find the police at her door telling her she could be charged with a crime if she didn’t get out.
“I am stressed out because what do I do?” said Valencia Brooks. “You have to come home to deal with something like this? Now where do I have to go?”
In April, she started looking at rental properties.
“I was on different websites and this one caught my eye, they renovated it and everything,” she said.
She found a home in Ferguson, falling in love with the renovations. It was a perfect place for the grandchildren to come and play.
She thought renting a home during a pandemic might be a little different.
“Because other properties I looked at the property managers said we can let you in, but we can’t come in with you and I get that, I get that,” she said.
So she didn’t think much of it when the alleged landlord texted her a code to the lock box on the door.
“He sent me the access code, I typed in the access code, the key was in the lock box, it opened it,” she said.
Everything else appeared to her to be legitimate. She got a lease and transferred $850.
“He said, ‘It’s yours, you’re my tenant now,’” Brooks said.
She moved all her stuff in, but three weeks later, "A gentlemen came over saying he actually owned the property and he has people moving in in a few days, and how did you get in here?”
Brooks was shocked. The man she’d paid had no legal authority to rent the place.
The police then showed up to tell her she had two days to move, or she could be charged with trespassing.
“I am the victim and they treated me like I am the criminal. I am just trying to live, so my grandkids have somewhere to stay and play,” Brooks said.
“Scammers never miss an opportunity to take advantage of people,” said Rebecca Phoenix with The Better Business Bureau.
Phoenix said rental scams are common and may become even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic as more people enter the rental market.
“Victims are often embarrassed when they fall for one of these scams, but the people who took their money are professionals," Phoenix said. "They do this all day long, seven days a week. In many cases, it’s their business so they know what they are doing.”
The scammers, she said, will copy real rental ads and then pose as leasing agents, often offering the property at lower than market value.
In fact, according to a recent survey, 43% of online shoppers looking for homes encountered a bogus listing.
The lockbox is just another tool of a scammer’s trade.
“The lock box adds a lot of legitimacy to the transaction and scammers go about getting access to that in a number of ways, usually employing another scam such as identity theft or impersonation,” Phoenix said.
Looking back, Brooks now sees red flags like the illegitimate-looking lease, and aggressive text messages to make the payments immediately.
News 4 tried calling multiple phone numbers the fake agent provided, but never heard back.
“People out here are working hard and trying to make a living and that’s the way you do people,” Brooks said.
Brooks said she now has no money left, and nowhere to go.
News 4 tried contacting the legitimate owners of the property but haven’t heard back.
We also reached out to Bank of America, which is what Valencia used to transfer the money. A spokesperson sent the following statement:
"I can’t talk about an individual account, but it is always unfortunate when people fall for scams like this. As always, consumers should know and trust who they are sending money to before initiating a transaction, regardless of payment method. We also post information on our website alerting people to scams. In cases like this, we will attempt to get the money back from the receiving bank; however, there is no guarantee since the customer has authorized the payment.
You can find a lot more information here.