KURE BEACH, NC (WECT) – As tourist season approaches in southeastern North Carolina, many people will be looking for a place to stay to enjoy the sun and sand.
Vacation rentals are big business, but as one Kure Beach landlord discovered, rental scams can target you when you least expect them, so he warns people to stay alert — and not just owners, but also tenants.
Tom Hillegass and his wife bought a house in Kure Beach in 2018. Along with their sons and grandchildren in Wilmington, they wanted to be able to come visit and spend time with family. The Hillegass couple live in New Jersey, but try to do it once a month and let the family use the house.
So when her sister came to visit and found a car in the driveway, she was surprised to say the least.
“On Friday they went to the beach 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 weren’t renting out their house.
“I said, ‘We’re not renting our house, this is our house.’ So I spoke to the gentleman and he said he rented it from luxury vacation rentals. What do I say ? It made no sense,” he said.
Confused with what was going on, Hillegass phoned the person who had rented the house from the man.
“He had come from Columbia, South Carolina, for the weekend. He has family in Wilmington, and they were all going to stay with us at Kure Beach,” Hillegass said.
It’s a bad situation for everyone and the potential tenant had nowhere left to go.
“I had informed them I’m sorry but we don’t rent our house, I think you were scammed. I asked him if he was paying the money, he said ‘yes’. I felt very bad for him, but [there’s] I can’t do anything,” Hillegass said.
So he decided to do a quick Google search for his house and found a listing on a southeastern North Carolina Craigslist.
It’s a troubling sentiment for Hillegass, and he said there isn’t much to do on a large scale. Although the listing has been flagged and removed from Craigslist, he fears these scammers are simply moving on to the next house. It’s not just the invasion of privacy, having your personal home listed on the internet, but the idea of random people showing up at your house, maybe trying to get in.
“What worried me was what would happen if my sister wasn’t there? Would these people break into the house and someone come out and fix the lock? ” he said.
Hillegass is going to be more vigilant about his house from now on. He has already asked his seaside town neighbors to be on the lookout for any unfamiliar vehicles in the driveway. He will also set up internet alerts that will report whenever his address is published online and photos of his house are removed from websites.
He wants to warn people about the reality of these scams and how to avoid them.
“I would advise people if you’re going to be renting, especially when you’re out of the area, I think you’d want to do business with a, a rental agent, someone who works for a local broker, because you can talk to someone, you could stop by the office, pick up the keys,” he said.
Hunt down the scammers
Hillegass contacted the Kure Beach Police Department, but he also went further in an effort to track down scammers using his home to make a quick buck. After receiving the information from the scammer, he decided to try renting his own house.
“We set up a text message, told him we were interested in renting this house July 1-July 5, he came back to it and said he checked, it’s available,” Hillegass said.
So he asked for a rental contract, which was sent. When Hillegass received it, he said it looked legit.
“It has the address of the property, there is the manager, [it] tells you what to do. He tells you the fees, the check in dates, and they want half up front and the other half at check in and of course he wants the money through some kind of cash app “, did he declare.
WECT reviewed the contract, which looks like a standard contract for a rental home, complete with a manager’s name and phone number.
Hillegass agreed to send $1 via Venmo to “make sure it worked,” and it turned out it did.
The situation is still ongoing and Hillegass has yet to tell the scammer who he is; however, he plans to do so 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 persistent problem
It is a sad reality. As technology advances and renting a home is easier than ever, scammers are turning to the internet in hopes of cashing in on unsuspecting victims.
The Federal Trade Commission has issued warnings for renters and landlords to be on the lookout for similar scams.
“Some scammers start with real rental listings. Then they strip off the owner’s contact information, insert their own, and place the new listing on another site, although they may continue to use the real owner’s name. other cases, scammers hijack owners’ email accounts on reputable vacation rental websites,” according to the FTC.
Wrightsville Beach Police Chief David Squires said the city was lucky not to have many incidents like this, but it did happen. He offered red flags for tenants to watch out for when booking a home.
He said: ‘You’re taking a risk if the provider wants you to communicate only by text – that’s 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 landlords, Squires also had some tips for protecting your properties.
“Get to know at least two neighbors by name. Let a neighbor know how to reach you if they suspect activity in your home. Return the favor. Lock your doors. If the innocent victim of a scam thinks they’re on vacation and can enter your home, that’s an obvious problem. Locking your doors reduces the risk of a nasty surprise,” he said.
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