Rental scam finds Decatur family scrambling for shelter

There's a real estate scam out there that's been around for a while but it works, and in the process real families get hurt. 

Dianna Hunter reached out to the FOX 5 I-Team. Frantic in tears. She moved from Ohio to Atlanta into a rental home. It was supposed to be a Christmas gift to the family. Instead, she's afraid they will be homeless soon.

“My goal was to find us a house before Christmas, and that was going to be our Christmas gift, to open doors instead of presents,” she said, wiping her eyes.

Hunter can barely control her grief.

She relocated her family – kids, puppies, all of it – from Ohio to the Decatur area for the lifestyle, the weather, and the schools. Hunter says she found the home on a real estate app that features homes for sale and for rent. She called the number for the home. A DeKalb police report says she talked to a man named "Anthony" who said he was the owner.  

The Decatur area home was supposed to be a Christmas gift to the family. Instead, Dianna Hunter is afraid they will be homeless soon.

“Yes. And he and his wife was, they were going to sell it, but decided not to because of the emails that we were exchanging and that I was really looking forward to coming back down here,” she said.

She told police she gave this man as much as $2,800 for a deposit, two months' rent, and money for HOA fees. She started to hang pictures; she bought a refrigerator, too, she says.

“I'm in shock. I'm discombobulated, and I don't know what's going on,” Hunter said.

That's how she said she felt 12 days after moving in when a security guard with police knocked on her door to tell her that she was squatting in a home she wasn't supposed to be in.

Hunter recalls the conversation with a man she knew to be Anthony:

“While the police were here I called this man. I’m, like, what’s going on with the house. ‘Oh, no, nothing wrong,' (he said). 'You’re supposed to be there. That’s me and my wife’s house.’”

The FOX 5 I-Team reached out to the owner of the home, a company based in California called Opendoor. In a phone call and subsequent email, we were told they own the Oregon Trail home where the Hunters are living.  No one named Anthony owns it, and it has never been a rental.

Here’s why Hunter came to believe it was a rental property: It's a common scam to repost a home for sale onto the rental section of the real estate sites. Scammers can visit the property, grab keyless entry codes in some cases, and start showing the house as a rental. In fact, FOX 5's Dana Fowle had a house on the market a few years back and within 24 hours she saw it online as a rental. She reported it immediately and it was removed.

So if you're trying to rent a house, here are some ways to make sure it's legit, according to recommendations by Opendoor:

Tour the property in person, verify the landlord's identity through property records, see if that address is actually in the for sale section, never sign a lease before seeing the property, and finally, never pay in cash or by wire.

“I'm in shock. I'm discombobulated, and I don't know what's going on,” Dianna Hunter said.

Hunter called "Anthony" while the I-Team was there. This time it was clear he didn't own the home but he still pushed, asking for even more money

“You only paid for rent for November and December," he barked at a sobbing woman with four children scared about where she will live.

DeKalb police are investigating the case and looking for "Anthony." And Hunter? Well, she's trying to find a new place to live and struggling to figure out how to do that with no money for a deposit.