Wednesday, September 26, 2018
Public safety

Vacation rental scams on the rise; here's how to avoid them

The Craigslist ad features photos of a "truly magnificent" penthouse with wide windows overlooking the sparkling azure waters of Clearwater Beach.

With four bedrooms and 4.5 bathrooms, the 5,283-square-foot Sandpearl home is furnished and includes a wine cellar, granite countertops and a beachside cabana.

It could be yours for just $200 a night.

For tourists, it's a slice of Florida paradise. For Clearwater police Detective Rob Lazzaro, the low price is the first indication that it's a scam.

Lazzaro has received reports on more than 20 vacation rental schemes since late December. The Pinellas Sheriff's Office has been investigating more than 12 cases since January. And detectives expect more cases to trickle in during spring break and summer.

"We're not through. We're definitely not through," said Lazzaro this week. "During this next month is when all of the people are going to show up to their so-called rentals and figure out that they've been scammed."

Here's how it works: Someone scrapes the description and photos of a legitimate condo or home listing from Realtor websites like Zillow and then pastes all of the details into a new ad on websites like Craigslist, VRBO.com and Homeaway.com. An unsuspecting tourist clicks on the ad and emails the poster, who directs them to send a deposit.

Victims send money via PayPal. Sometimes, they're also instructed to mail a money order to a local Pinellas address that is then forwarded to another location, either out of state or overseas.

Others have legitimate bank accounts. Lazzaro heard of one case where someone in Cambodia incorporated a fake business through Delaware and opened a Bank of America business account.

"Whatever they can get away with, they try it," said Sheriff's Office Cpl. Robert Somers, who works in the economic crimes unit.

Some victims decide to do more research after sending their deposit and realize their vacation rental is a sham. Others don't find out until they arrive at the gated properties and talk to staff.

And the money, once it has been sent, is gone.

Lazzaro, of the economic crimes unit, has seen cases that mostly involve condos, including units in the Sandpearl Residences and the Grande on Sand Key, but has also found fraudulent ads for homes in Island Estates and north Clearwater Beach. Somers has seen mostly waterfront homes, some of them in Madeira Beach and Indian Rocks Beach, and also receives reports of vacant properties advertised online as monthly rentals.

Making arrests in these cases presents challenges, detectives say, since the networks of people operating the scams span across states and countries.

Last year, Lazzaro spoke to the Jenks Police Department in Oklahoma about a man who was accused of collecting money from several victims on behalf of a woman he had met online. One of the victims, who was from Canada, had wired a $2,253 deposit to him for a Clearwater property, police records show. After finding the legitimate rental ad, she called the property owner, who told her he didn't advertise on Craigslist. He called Clearwater police.

The Sheriff's Office recently forwarded one case involving a local person to prosecutors. They did not release more details because it remains an open investigation.

Most of the listings Lazzaro, the Clearwater detective, sees are on Craigslist, where ads are free and posters can remain anonymous. Lazzaro said he flags fraudulent ads on the website all the time, but if the ad looks legitimate enough, Craigslist might keep it. If the site decides to delete it, the poster can just create another ad.

A few months ago, Lazzaro posted on the vacation rentals section to warn Clearwater visitors about the schemes lurking online.

But Craigslist, explaining he wasn't advertising a property, deleted it.

"I was trying to prepare for this spring break," he said.

Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] Follow @lauracmorel.

Comments
Chilling 911 call from shooting victim’s son lays out horrors of Pasco murder-suicide

Chilling 911 call from shooting victim’s son lays out horrors of Pasco murder-suicide

Shortly after midnight Monday, Pasco County 911 dispatchers received a chilling call."My mom is shot," said the wavering voice of a young man. "My mom was shot."Though not identified, deputies say 14-year-old Mark Price had run out of his house on 1...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Markeis McGlockton’s autopsy shows he turned away from shooter

Markeis McGlockton’s autopsy shows he turned away from shooter

The autopsy for Markeis McGlockton, who was killed in a shooting that set off a debate about Florida’s stand your ground law, shows the bullet entered his body at an angle and tore through his heart and both lungs.The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Florida man throws bicycle, then other man off bridge (w/ video)

Florida man throws bicycle, then other man off bridge (w/ video)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Police say a man and a woman whose bike had a flat tire were attacked as they tried to walk across the Main Street Bridge in Daytona Beach, Florida. Police say 21-year-old Derrick Goodin began yelling about money at Steph...
Updated: 11 hours ago

Man dies hours after boat capsizes near Dick Misener Bridge

ST. PETERSBURG — One man died hours after he and a friend were pulled from the water Monday when their fishing boat capsized near the Dick Misener Bridge, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.A bicyclist riding over the bridge saw the bo...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Tampa gunshot victim dies after he’s dropped off at hospital, police say

Tampa gunshot victim dies after he’s dropped off at hospital, police say

Times staffTAMPA — A man suffering from gunshot wounds died at a Tampa hospital after someone dropped him off there Tuesday afternoon, police said.Tampa police responded to a call about gunshots just after noon near the intersection of E Hillsborough...
Published: 09/25/18
Two bodies found in Clearwater Beach motel room

Two bodies found in Clearwater Beach motel room

CLEARWATER BEACH — Two people were found dead in a hotel room at Shephard’s Beach on Tuesday, according to Clearwater police.Police received a call at about 1:29 p.m. Officers found the two bodies in a room on the second floor.Homicide detectives are...
Published: 09/25/18
SB I-75 reopens after crash involving semi-trailers spills fruit trees onto roadway

SB I-75 reopens after crash involving semi-trailers spills fruit trees onto roadway

A three-vehicle crash brought southbound traffic on I-75 to a standstill early Tuesday morning after a vehicle struck a semi-trailer hauling fruit trees, spilling its contents onto the interstate.Jerome Coleman and Wendy Sweat, of Douglas, Ga., were ...
Published: 09/25/18
He helped save a disabled man trapped in a burning house. Now, he is a letter-carrier hero

He helped save a disabled man trapped in a burning house. Now, he is a letter-carrier hero

VALRICO — Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night are supposed to keep U.S. Postal Service workers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.Add fire to that list for Jason Moss, a letter carrier for the Sulphur Springs Post Offic...
Published: 09/25/18
Citrus County crash kills two, including Port Richey motorcyclist

Citrus County crash kills two, including Port Richey motorcyclist

A Port Richey motorcyclist and pedestrian from Citrus County were killed Monday morning in a crash on U.S. 19 in Homosassa.According to the Florida Highway Patrol, 50-year-old Donald Glenn Moore was riding northbound on U.S. 19, near South Suffolk Te...
Published: 09/25/18
Michael Drejka released on bail in Clearwater parking space incident

Michael Drejka released on bail in Clearwater parking space incident

LARGO — Michael Drejka, the man who shot and killed Markeis McGlockton in a case that set off a national debate about self-defense in July, was released from the Pinellas County Jail on Monday afternoon.Always Available Bail Bonds posted $100,000 bai...
Published: 09/24/18
Updated: 09/25/18