Left out to dry, homeowner warns of rental scams as tourist season approaches

Published: Apr. 13, 2022 at 3:16 PM EDT
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KURE BEACH, N.C. (WECT) - As tourist season in southeastern North Carolina approaches, plenty of people will be looking for a place to stay to enjoy the sun and sand.

Vacation rentals are big business, but as one homeowner in Kure Beach found out, rental scams can target you when least expected, so he’s warning folks to stay vigilant — and not just homeowners, but renters as well.

Tom Hillegass and his wife bought a home in Kure Beach in 2018. With their sons and grandchildren in Wilmington, they wanted to be able to come down and visit and spend time with the family. The Hillegass couple lives in New Jersey but try and make it down once a month and let family use the home.

So, when his sister came down to visit and found a car in the driveway, she was surprised, to say the least.

“On Friday they went to the beach came back and there was someone in our driveway and they were there to check in. They had rented our house for the weekend,” Hillegass said.

There was just one problem, the Hillegass’s don’t rent their home.

“I said, ‘We don’t rent our house, this is our house.’ So, I spoke to the gentleman and he said he rented it through luxury vacation rentals. I’m saying, what? It didn’t make any sense,” he said.

Confused with what was happening, Hillegass got on the phone with the person who had rented the home to the man.

“He had come from Columbia, South Carolina for the weekend. He has family in Wilmington, and they were all going to stay at our house in Kure Beach,” Hillegass said.

It’s a bad situation for everyone and the would-be renter now had nowhere to stay.

“I had informed them that I’m sorry, but we don’t let our house, I think you’ve been scammed. I asked him if he paid the money, he said ‘yes’ … I felt terrible for him, but [there’s] nothing I can do,” Hillegass said.

So, he decided to do a quick Google search for his home and found a listing on a southeastern North Carolina Craigslist.

It’s an unsettling feeling for Hillegass, and he said there is not much that can be done about it on the larger scale. While the listing has been flagged and removed from Craigslist, he fears these scammers will simply move on to the next home. It’s not just the invasion of privacy, having your personal home listed on the internet but the idea of having random people showing up at your house, possibly trying to get in.

“What concerned me is — what happens if my sister wasn’t there? Would these people have broken into the house and then had someone come out and fix the lock?” he said.

Hillegass is going to be more vigilant when it comes to his home from here on out. He has already asked his neighbors in the beach town to be on the lookout for any unknown vehicles in the driveway. He’s also going to be setting up alerts on the internet that will flag anytime his address is posted online as well as have the photos of his home removed from websites.

He wants to warn folks of the realities of these scams, and ways to avoid them.

“I would advise people if you’re gonna do rental, especially when you’re out of the area, I would think you’d want to deal with a, a rental agent, someone who works for a local broker, because you can talk to someone, you could stop at the office, pick up the keys,” he said.

Tracking the scammers

Hillegass did reach out to the Kure Beach Police Department, but he’s also taken things a step further in an attempt to track down the scammers using his home to make a quick buck. After receiving the scammer’s information, he decided to try and rent his own home.

“We set up a text, told him we were interested in renting this house from July 1 to July 5, he got back to it and said he checked, it’s available,” Hillegass said.

So, he asked for a rental agreement, which was sent. When Hillegass received it he said it looked legitimate.

“It has the property address, it’s got the the manager, [it] tells you what you have to do. It tells you the fees, the check in dates, and they want half upfront and the other half at the time of check in and, of course, he wants the money through some type of cash app,” he said.

WECT reviewed the contract, which looks like a standard agreement for a rental home, complete with a manager’s name and phone number.

Hillegass agreed to send $1 through Venmo to ‘make sure it was working,’ and, as it turns out, it did.

The situation is still ongoing and Hillegass has not yet told the scammer who he is; however, he plans on doing that soon. One of his biggest concerns is the lack of repercussions for scammers like this, who are often not even located in the country.

A ongoing problem

It’s an unfortunate reality. As technology advances and renting a home is easier than ever, scammers are taking to the internet hoping to cash in on unsuspecting victims.

The Federal Trade Commission has posted warnings for renters and owners to be on the lookout for similar scams.

“Some scammers start with real rental listings. Then they take off the owner’s contact information, put in their own, and place the new listing on a different site — though they might continue to use the name of the actual owner. In other cases, scammers hijack the email accounts of property owners on reputable vacation rental websites,” according to the FTC.

Wrightsville Beach Chief of Police David Squires said the town is fortunate to not have many incidents like this one, but it has happened. He offered some red flags for renters to be on the lookout for when booking a home.

He said, “You are taking a risk if the provider wants you to communicate solely through text — that is a red flag; You agree to pay using cash apps, bank transfers, gift cards etc. Money transferred through gift cards and cash apps is very difficult to trace or recover.”

As for homeowners, Squires also had some advice to protect your properties.

“Get to know at least two neighbors by name. Let a neighbor know how to reach you if they are suspicious of activity at your home. Repay the favor. Lock your doors. If the innocent victim of a scam believes they are on vacation and they can walk into your home, that is an obvious problem. Locking your doors reduces the risk of an unwelcome surprise,” he said.

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