Local home broker uncovers rental scam

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The scammer’s invoice submitted to the renter for payment. Islander Courtesy Photo

If her real estate career ever goes south, a local broker might look at becoming a detective.

Jen Bowman and husband Mark are real estate partners on Anna Maria Island. They’ve been in business since 2004 and know the rental industry on the island inside and out.

So when Tamy Ball of Ohio contacted Jen Bowman saying she had a bad feeling about a recent vacation rental contract, Bowman took one look and knew the document was bogus.

“I had her send me a screen shot of the invoice and the red flags immediately went up,” Bowman said Jan. 9.

“First, there was no resort tax. Everybody legitimate knows there is a 12 percent resort tax added on, period. Then the door code for the lock box was all wrong. It didn’t make any sense for a U.S. Lock like the ones we use here,” Bowman continued.

Ball said in a phone interview Jan. 9, she should have been more savvy about online booking, but it was her first time.

“We come to Anna Maria about four times a year. We usually stay in the same place, but it was booked. This guy private-messaged me quickly after I posted on a Facebook page I was looking for accommodations,” Ball said.

The man messaged Ball that she could rent his property, Peach Bellini in Holmes Beach, with a $750 PayPal deposit. He said Ball would save $450 by booking with him and bypassing his rental agency.

The scammer then helped Ball set up a PayPal account.

“I should have thought something was funny, but it was the holidays. I’m a kindergarten teacher. I have two kids of my own.

I was busy and just glad to have somewhere to stay for my spring break trip with other teachers,” Ball said.

Two weeks later, on Christmas Day, the man messaged Ball saying a rate increase had been decided at an owners’ meeting, and, if she paid the balance of $900 by Dec. 30, 2017, she would avoid the rate increase.

“Again, I should have known but I never thought I would be scammed,” Ball admitted.

On Jan. 8, a friend saw a post on the same Facebook page saying the property was available for March 24-31 and pointed it out to Ball.

“I laughed, then I got worried. I contacted Jen Bowman, who looked like a legitimate Realtor and could help me sort it out,” Ball said about selecting Bowman at random from ads.

After seeing the screen shot of the invoice, Bowman, an agent with Keller Williams on the Water, switched to detective mode.

Searching property rolls, she established the rental offered did not belong to Bill Fleming, the name used to scam Ball. Bowman also determined there is no such agent in Florida and Bill Fleming Co. is not registered with the state.

Bowman located a Bill Fleming Co. in Illinois and contacted the office with news the name was being used in a vacation rental scam on Anna Maria Island.

Facebook also was contacted, and shut down the fake profile. An IP address also was being back-traced, but Bowman believes the perpetrator is from Europe.

“The date on the invoice was written out of order,” she said.

On further inquiry, a property search by The Islander revealed what was falsely offered for rent as the Peach Bellini is a duplex unit owned by Tracy and Adam Wilson of south Tampa.

When contacted by phone Jan. 14, the pair said they had no idea their property was involved in a rental scam and urged potential renters to stick with well-established island rental agents or dedicated rental sites, such as VRBO or Home Away.

“As property owners, we are disappointed this has happened because it reflects negatively on Anna Maria Island. I don’t know what jurisdiction it would be, since the scam crossed state lines, but we are in favor of prosecution,” Adam Wilson said.

Tracy Adams advised potential renters to never pay more than a deposit months in advance.

Ball’s story may end with her credit card company reimbursing her losses and PayPal made aware of the scam.

She made a police report in Ohio on the advice of her credit card company, though none was made on Anna Maria Island.

Bowman’s advice? Book through a legitimate source. If someone is pressuring you or offering to forego taxes, etc., steer clear. If it seems too good to be true or seems a bit off, it probably is.

And do some detective work in advance of your booking online.

Ball said she hopes to retire to Anna Maria Island one day, but, in the meantime, will continue to visit AMI.

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