'For Rent' scam hits Houston

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The victims think they're getting a good deal on a piece of property from a realtor, but it turns out the home is not available and the broker is fake.

The victims are people looking for homes to rent. The problem is the homes aren't for rent, rather they're only for sale. One woman we spoke to over the phone Wednesday caught on before losing any money. Another wanted us to tell her story because she wasn't so lucky.

For Mary Thai, it seemed like the perfect house.

"It was cozy and nice and affordable," said Thai.

Just what she and her husband were looking for: three bedrooms, close to work, and updated.

"Stainless steel, upgraded tile, everything was upgraded in the house," said Thai.

So in late March, the manicurist met whom she thought was the listing agent at the house on Linecamp. They spent 30 minutes walking the property.

"Telling me what I can do, what I can't do, what I can change and what I can't change," said Thai.

She signed a lease agreement and gave him $1,400 in cash. He gave her the keys and a lie.

"He said, 'Oh wait, the remote doesn't work,'" said Thai.

He said he'd be right back. It was the last she saw of him. The real broker gave her the news a few minutes later.

"I said, 'I'm your new tenant. You said you were going to come back.' He goes, 'Ma'am that house is only for sale and you just got swindled,'" said Thai.

Thai found the house on craigslist.org. According to the Houston Association of Realtors, crooks have been using the popular classifieds website to con people across the country for more than a year, listing rental property that's not theirs to list. Only recently has the scheme hit Houston.

"That old adage does apply: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Take advice and take caution," said an HAR Board Member Amy Smythe Harris.

Thai said the deal did seem too good to be true. Her husband took a photo of the smooth talker's Lexus.

"If you stand there and talk to them, the more they're going to lure you in, that's what happened to us," said Thai.

It's been hard to recover from losing hundreds of dollars, especially for someone that's paycheck to paycheck. That's why Thai has felt compelled to speak up.

"I just don't want it to happen to anyone else," said Thai.

The Harris County Sheriff's Office is investigating Thai's case. While the Houston Association of Realtors thinks craigslist.org is a good forum, it encourages people to use their website, har.com, to make sure property listings are legitimate.

If you think you've been scammed, call your local law enforcement agency to file a report.

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