When prospective tenants came by to tour a Washington home available for rent, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
The single-story home on the Tulalip Indian Reservation features a 240-square-foot deck overlooking Tulalip Bay, reported The Daily Herald. Renters found framed photos on the walls showing the prospective landlord, who had started a fire in the fireplace during their visits and later called their references.
But Matthew Robert Paul, 35, of Marysville, Wash., had broken into the home in April 2017 while the real owners were away on an extended vacation in Mexico and then placed ads offering it for rent, tribal police told the publication. He’d hung his own photos on the walls to help carry out the scam, police said.
“To hear something like that really made me mad,” Matt Dunn, whose parents own the house, told KIRO. “Just using somebody’s house is dirt-baggish to begin with. Going the extra mile and trying to gain from it? It’s really crazy.”
Paul collected a $45 application fee from each of the five prospective renters, along with personal information, then – after checking their references – informed two men they’d been picked as the new tenants, police told The Daily Herald. He collected $5,500 in cash and traveler’s checks from the men to cover rent, deposits and remodeling costs.
Police told KIRO that Paul had the men make the checks out to his purported uncle, saying he owed the man money, then paid the man posing as his relative $20 worth of heroin to cash the checks for him. When the tenants returned to the home to prepare to move in, Paul had vanished – along with $1,900 in televisions, laptops and tools from the home.
Charges against Paul, who has pleaded not guilty, were filed in March and he’s due back in court Thursday, authorities told The Daily Herald.
A neighbor said Paul had told her he was house-sitting for the owners over their vacation, according to KIRO.
“That didn’t seem strange or peculiar to us,” Evelyn Werner told the station. “He seemed like a normal kind of guy. He befriended us and told us he was a friend. I guess it hurts my heart that people will go to such extremes to take advantage of innocent, trusting people.”
A more common version of the fake landlord scam involves changing the locks on a foreclosed home, restoring the utilities and then posing as the owner or property manager to rent out the vacant property, according to a U.S. government web page on housing scams.
The site advises renters to be wary if the person trying to rent the home claims to be an agent for the owner, requires you to sign the lease before seeing the property, doesn’t let you enter the home or uses high-pressure sales tactics. Prospective tenants should collect all information on the rental, check property listings for the owner’s name and research national real estate sites to see if the same property and photos are listed in several cities across the U.S., the site says.