Renters searching for an affordable home in the greater Tampa Bay region have another hurdle to overcome: internet scams.
Many are of the low-dollar variety, like the one that ensnared Dominic Cwiklinsi in June.
Cwiklinsi was searching Zillow in June when he spotted a rental within his monthly budget — a rarity in Tampa Bay’s surging market, he said.
Eager, he applied through a third-party website, electronically paid the $30 fee and never heard back.
Although the online listing appeared legitimate, Cwiklinski believes he fell victim to a rental scam created to fish for application fees. He said the property remained listed for more than a month — likely shamming hundreds of potential renters just like him.
“They try to have you send them money, or application fees, in order to hold the place,” he said. Sometimes, asking for a security deposit or first- and last-month’s rent. And often, asking for fees to be paid up front, without touring the property.
Authorities say scams like these are becoming more common in the greater Tampa Bay region. With little inventory and lots of people looking for places to live, the housing market is ripe for scammers.
On it’s website, Zillow warns about this kind of foul play, saying it could happen on any website where users can self-advertise rental listings, including Craigslist, eBay and Facebook Marketplace.
“This is particularly true if you’re on a tight deadline to find a place, making it even more important to be on the lookout for potential fraud,” according to a tip sheet published by the real-estate website.
Cwiklinski said filtering though scams adds another frustration for people who are having a difficult time finding an affordable place to live.
“I can’t describe the frustration,” Cwiklinski said. “It’s like – you don’t know what to do next. What else should I try? What else can I try?”
Better known as “Coach,” Cwiklisnki teaches health and runs the track program at Tampa Bay Technical High School. He had hoped to find a new place to live before the school year started.
“The last four years, I lived at an apartment complex,” he said. “And rent almost doubled in two years.”
For now, he’s living out of a suitcase in a friend’s extra bedroom. Before and after school, during lunch and in between classes, Cwiklinski combs through rental listings on half a dozen mobile apps.
Now that he knows what to watch for, he estimates he’s spotted about a hundred fraudulent listings.
By the numbers
Data requested from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center show that real-estate scams are a persistent problem in the greater Tampa Bay region.
The center, which acts as a clearinghouse for complaints by internet crime victims, defines real-estate scams as the reported loss of funds through fraud involving any rental or timeshare property, including higher-dollar schemes.
Last year, 304 victims reported losing a total of $6.2 million in six Florida counties: Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, Sarasota and Manatee.
Hillsborough County accounts for nearly half of those reports in the greater Tampa Bay region, with 132 people reporting around $3.5 million in losses in 2021.
Between January and July, the count of complaints and loss amounts per month were on an upward trend in Hillsborough, Manatee and Pasco counties compared to 2021. Notably, in Pasco County losses more than doubled for victims of real-estate scams – jumping from almost $790,000 to over $2 million in less than 12 months.
Special agent Andrew Sekela with the FBI Tampa Division predicts the actual loss amount for real-estate victims in the Tampa Bay region are two- to three-times higher than what was reported. In his former FBI role, he headed the region’s white-collar crime division and worked closely with financial institutions and the real-estate industry.
“Based on my experience being here for 10 years, there are a lot of fraudsters in Tampa,” Sekela said.
He said not all real-estate scams warrant a response from law enforcement.
Low-dollar scams not usually investigated
The most common, low-dollar real-estate scam — like the one that entrapped Cwiklinski – is called “adverse possession.”
“This is when someone takes possession of a property that they don’t legitimately own,” Sekela said.
Traditionally, scammers would stake fake “For Rent” signs in the front yards of vacant properties they had no claim to. Sekela said this was a popular scheme in the early 2000s, when there was a similarly heightened interest in the housing market.
Since then, real-estate fraudsters have moved online. Though the strategy has remained the same: to swindle an application fee, security deposit or even begin collecting rent before the jig is up.
Nowadays, scammers scrape images from legitimate listings and advertise them on websites like Zillow, eBay, Craigslist and FaceBook Marketplace – posing as the owner.
Tampa realtor Tiffany Prete said she had been warned about this kind of activity, but was still surprised to find one of her own properties roped into a rental fraud scheme.
“It took my breath away,” she said.
In July, Prete sold a New Port Richey home for nearly $500,000 to out-of-state buyers. In August, the buyers listed the home for rent on Zillow and found tenants within a couple days, according to the buyer’s agent Tetiana Gapych. About a week later, a fake rental listing surfaced on Facebook, advertising the home for $2,500 a month.
More often than not, Sekela said these low-dollar scams aren’t investigated.
To warrant the involvement of local law enforcement or the FBI’s internet crime squad, Sekela said the loss amount must exceed a threshold of six or seven figures, as set by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
He warns renters and realtors to beware of these higher-dollar schemes: some scammers will purport to offer mortgage refinance services and then pocket borrowers’ payments. Others can hack into legitimate business email communications, like a realtor and a homebuyer, to intercept high-dollar transactions, like a down payment on a home.
Sekela’s advice: Trust no one.
“If you receive an email or a text message, or even a phone call from somebody, verify they are who they say they are independently,” he said. “Don’t take them at their word for it.”
Renters should verify their realtor’s identity and real-estate license on the website for Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulations. Property ownership should also be verified on the county’s property appraiser website.
“It’s hard nowadays to know exactly what is good enough because the fraudsters … the longer they are engaged in a scheme, the more savvy they become.”
Scammers prey on desperate renters
Rose Burke is all too familiar.
She’s been scammed before. So, she knows all the tell-tale signs of rental fraud. And still, in August, she was nearly taken in by a real-estate scam. This time: on a website that her daughter’s social worker suggested.
“I guess there’s no website that you can really trust out there,” she said.
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— Rose Burke Carrollwood
Rose Burke, 60, stands outside of her Carrollwood home. Lately, she’s been helping her daughter search for a new place to live.
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— Taina Garcia and kids
Taina Garcia, 35, and her five kids wear coordinated outfits during a Fourth of July celebration in 2022. (Left to right: Lailani, Lailah, Taina, Elijah, Luis and Tahlia).
Burke works from her Carrollwood home as a telesales agent. In her spare time, she’s been combing through rental listings for her daughter, a single mom of five who qualifies for Section 8 housing.
While browsing, Burke said a man messaged her on the affordable housing website, which collects rental properties that accept housing vouchers. The message provided an address for a charming yellow home 15 minutes away and the person who said he was the owner encouraged her to drive by and check it out.
“And so I did go there. I was looking in the backyard – oh my god – looking in the windows,” she said.
After leaving, she called the number on the “For Rent” sign posted in the front yard and learned that the man she was messaging with was not the owner.
“I think that they’re targeting low-income people, because I think that there’s a certain desperation,” she said.
Burke knows to verify the identity of realtors and double-check property records. But, she said, most people don’t.
Tampa realtor Gary De Pury, who is also an attorney, advises renters: “If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.”
Quite simply, he said, fraud follows booming business. And in an affordable housing crisis, rental scams are a symptom of desperation.
Unlike New York or San Francisco, where the average income competes with the cost of housing, De Pury said wages in the greater Tampa Bay region are out of step with the “astronomical rent increases.”
“Every few months, it seems I’ll get an inquiry from someone who has been taken advantage of and they would like me to go get the money back,” he said.
But there’s rarely a legal avenue to recoup victims’ losses.
De Pury said the best prevention for renters relocating amid the affordable housing crisis is a greater awareness.
“If the Tampa Bay area can be 10 percent more aware,” he said, “the scammers will move on to a different area.”
Resources to avoid and report real-estate scams:
Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She’s also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.