'He sold me a dream and disappeared into thin air': Would-be renters lose thousands in apartment bait-and-switch
A Brooklyn woman says she was the victim of a bait-and-switch while looking for a new apartment during the pandemic -- and a Team 12 Investigation has found that she's not alone.
Atonia Lewis was asked to move after her old landlord died of COVID-19. She found a listing for a one-bedroom apartment on Facebook Marketplace.
On Jan. 6, she went to see the property and meet with a man named "Ian," who claimed he was the landlord.
"When I saw it, I just wanted it right away," she said.
When Lewis expressed her interest in the property, "Ian" asked her to pay in cash, explaining that he had previously taken checks from tenants and they bounced. Lewis handed over $3,600 cash, signed a lease, and got a key.
On Jan. 9, the day she was supposed to move in, she stopped by the apartment after work to drop off a few of her things. That's when she realized the keys she was given no longer worked.
"I can't open the door. I tried to contact the landlord, I tried to call, nobody answered," she explained.
"He sold me a dream and disappeared into thin air," Lewis says, describing it as a "heart-dropping situation."
The next morning, she called the police, who told her they don't do break-ins. So she called the FDNY, who came and broke down the door. Soon after, she says a stranger arrived and told her he owned the property.
That stranger, who asked us to identify him as Al, is the real landlord of that building. He says he didn't put the apartment on Facebook Marketplace. Instead, he lists the property on Airbnb, and believes it was his Airbnb guests that are responsible.
"They feed them all kinds of lies and then they get the money and they disappear," he said.
As it turns out, Lewis is not the only victim of this bait-and-switch. As our investigation unfolded, we found multiple other victims who lost thousands of dollars.
Police say they have five similar incidents on record at that same apartment between December and January. They say the method used has been almost entirely the same: the suspects rent an apartment on Airbnb, and then list it on Facebook Marketplace. When interested renters come to view the property, they sign a lease, collect the cash, hand over a key, and then disappear.
When the victims who paid for the apartment try to move in, they are confronted by the real landlord, who is unaware of what happened, and left to clean up the mess.
"There was a series of people coming in with the key. 'OK,' they said, 'we are here to move in,'" Al said.
Police say they arrested 23-year-old Justice Simpson for grand larceny in connection to the first two incidents in December. When Al saw more people showing up with the keys in January, he couldn't believe it.
"I met two people in front of the building, saying they were coming here to visit an apartment for rent. I said, 'Oh no, not again,'" he recalled.
In February, police arrested 23-year-old Enmanuel Castillo, charging him with grand larceny and scheming to defraud.
Our investigative team contacted the district attorney's offices of all five boroughs and found that Castillo and Simpson are now in court for at least seven additional incidents between the two of them in Queens and Manhattan. In one of those cases, another man, named Brian Ramirez, was also arrested. Altogether, our investigative team confirmed at least 13 incidents around the city.
Across state lines, the New Jersey Attorney General's Division of Consumer affairs says they are also investigating a similar Facebook Marketplace rental scam. The National Association of Attorneys General told our team that this is a new take on an old scam.
Back in Brooklyn, both Lewis and Al are calling on Airbnb to do more. Al said he no longer wants to use the site, in fear of this happening again, or ending up with squatters in his apartment.
Lewis said, "I hope that Airbnb find it in their heart to take responsibility, knowing their customers are going around scamming people in this pandemic."
An Airbnb spokesperson said they removed the suspects' profiles and reimbursed the landlord. In a statement, the company said, "Our sympathies are with the victims of this predatory social media scam, and we stand ready to support local law enforcement in their investigation."
On their website, the company says they verify the identity of all guests, using a driver's license, requesting additional images, and sometimes even running a background check. However, Al says the guests who got into his apartment used fake profiles and were able to get past all the verifications.
"They don't allow us, the host, to do any kind of background check on the guest, so pretty much you have to trust whatever Airbnb is doing," he said.
Over the span of months, we made repeated attempts to reach Facebook, asking them for comment, but never received a response.
Altogether, our investigation found that the victims of this loophole lost more than $22,000 in their searches for a home.
Al says he is frustrated by the lack of answers he got from Airbnb staff when he made calls to explain what has repeatedly happened in his apartment.
"People are getting harmed by the fact that the system is failing," he said.