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‘Horrible’ online rental scams are in Albany and happen ‘at least once a week’

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ALBANY – I was almost the victim of a rental scam, but they messed with the wrong woman. 

I was days away from moving to the Capital Region to start working with the Times Union when the apartment I was moving into fell through. Fearing I’d have nowhere to stay, I rushed to find a new place to call home. 

A listing I found on – a reputable realty site – seemed perfect and more than I needed. It was a beautifully remodeled home at 24 Belvidere Avenue in Albany listed for rent at $800 a month with all utilities included. 

The listing cited three bedrooms and bathrooms accompanied by what looked like professionally taken photos boasting bright, airy rooms full of natural light. It seemed too good to be true. 

I contacted the property through and received an automated response that said someone would get back to me soon and waited. 

The scheme unravels

The next day I received a long-winded email riddled with poor grammar from a Gmail account named “Trust God.” A person, who identified himself as the home’s owner, said he taught at several universities in Michigan and Illinois and was currently working at an organization called Warrior’s Ascent, helping veterans and first responders cope with post traumatic stress disorder while living in Texas for the next three years.

The person said he and his wife failed to sell the house and were looking for someone to take care of it in their absence. They strayed away from working with an agent or firm and said they were taking time out of their “busy schedule,” to find the right tenant. They sent over an application. 

Feeling pressured by my situation, I hastily applied seeing the information asked for was generic and not too intrusive. But, there was a red flag. They asked how much I would be willing to put down if I had to buy the house. This didn’t sit right with me but, I ignored my instinct and figured I would ask about it when I saw the house in person. 

The very next day the person emailed me again, another laughably long message telling me they’d accepted my application and wanted to rent it out to me. 

“My wife and i have thought about you and we are so much excited to accept you as our new home tenant because you really sounds like kind of person that we are looking to rent our home,” he wrote. 

The strong discomfort I had with his turnaround time and atrocious grammar made my gut scream no. “This is wrong,” it shouted. I ignored the email and decided to cut ties. 

The person sent me a text from a 712-number – an Iowa area code – the next day about renting the house. Just for a giggle, I responded. 

“Hi, before choosing to rent it, I would like to see it,” I replied. “Can that be arranged?”

The person never answered. I looked up the home again and found a Zillow listing that showed it was for sale by a local realtor, Bryon Phelps. Phelps had no idea about the scam until I contacted him. 

He and his partner, Matt Baker, bought the home in August of 2020 and listed it for sale this month, according to property records

“It’s horrible. It’s unfortunate that we have people in our world today that are just out there looking to scam people, take their money and it’s sad,” Baker said.

Baker and Phelps did not, in fact, try to rent the home out.

I later called the 712-number and it went straight to automation that said it could not confirm my call and hung up on me. I emailed the “Trust God” address and told the person I was a reporter and now working on a story about the rental and potential scam. They never answered. 

The darling Belvidere home is now under contract by Phelps and the mystery poser is in the wind and maybe realizing the jig is up.

Real estate scams are more common than you think

Warrior’s Ascent, the small, Kansas City-based non-profit this person claimed to work for, is a real place. Christy Cook, the organization’s operations director, said she never heard of the man who was trying to rent out the home. But the scheme wasn’t totally unfamiliar to Cook. 

She said she’s received calls from “all over the country” about a person scamming people, identifying as a Warrior’s Ascent member. People have forwarded their emails from the scammer but there are dead ends in exposing the impostor. The organization’s lawyers are looking into the scams but haven’t come up with anything yet. 

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Cook said. “We are trying to save the lives of veterans and first responders suffering from PTSD and someone using that to try and gain people’s trust is wrong.”

The New York State Department of Consumer Protection has received about 239 real estate complaints since 2018. Department spokesperson Erin McCarthy said the schemes are executed in different ways but have the same goal: bilk consumers out of as much money as possible. 

“The scammers take legitimate rental postings and re-post or advertise them with their own contact information, often at enticing, lower rates than the original…

Read More: ‘Horrible’ online rental scams are in Albany and happen ‘at least once a week’

2021-08-23 23:03:05

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