News 13 Investigates: A warning - Mountain vacation ruined when scammers strike

Kathleen Ford and her husband Steve run NC Mountains Realty and they revealed Karen wasn't the only victim.  “It was a week earlier and somebody asked if we advertise on craigslist and we said no and directed them to our website,” said Ford. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

Imagine paying for a vacation rental that doesn't exist.

It's happening in the mountains.

Thousands are headed to our region for the eclipse, and many do not plan to stay in a hotel. The popular trend has become renting a home or cabin. Why? It’s all about value for the price, but now thieves are taking advantage of the trend.

Karen Burke's summer hasn't been easy.

“My husband had a motorcycle accident to begin with in June, and that's, during that accident they were doing a full body MRI and came across some spots that resulted in a diagnosis of cancer,” explained Burke.

Her own health issues, a heart condition, made mountain views the prescription. A quick search online found a Bryson City cabin and an agent named Mitch.

“It was coming from Craigslist, but it was a Vacation Rentals By Owner. It had a website attached to it from that, so, the site looked legit,” said Burke.

The scam

Burke deposited $600 cash in the Bank of America account Mitch gave her, signed an official looking contract and drove more than 100 miles from Greenville, South Carolina, to Bryson City.

“For just a couple of days to get away, yeah,” Burke said with a huge sigh.

Before the mountain air could fill Burke’s lungs and she could decompress, she realized something wasn’t right.

“It looked nothing like the pictures. I kept thinking I had made the mistake, that somehow, maybe in the area there was, like I wrote drive and it was actually lane,” said Burke.

The address was right, but owner Kathleen Ford had bad news.

“They had been duped,” said Ford.

Ford and her husband run NC Mountains Realty, and they revealed Burke wasn't the only victim.

“It was a week earlier and somebody asked if we advertise on Craigslist, and we said no and directed them to our website,” said Ford.

Her real ad was hijacked.

“I saw my verbiage and advertising words with another picture of a different cabin. I felt violated, I really did. I felt violated,” said Ford.

The Ford's reported it to Craigslist, but News 13 found the ad days later and tried to rent. Immediately Mitch responded and tried to get us to switch to another email address so we could continue to communicate. But when we hesitated, the ad and Mitch disappeared. The Fords also helped Burke file a report with the Swain County Sheriff's Office.

“The slightest hint of any hassle, they're gone and moved on,” explained Matt Quinn, interim Special Agent in Charge of the Charlotte Secret Service Office .

Getting law enforcement involved

News 13 went to Charlotte to sit down with Quinn.

“They're looking for the quick, easy, move on to the next. You put enough out there, receive enough phone calls, you'll get them,” said Quinn.

Plenty get burned. The American Hotel & Lodging Association finds booking scams rake in $1.3 billion annually.

“You have large scale criminal organizations, mostly overseas, that are operating or initiating the fraud,” explained Quinn.

In North Carolina, 280 reported real estate and rental scams last year, amounting to more than $400,000 stolen. The U.S. Secret Service has had success. Annually, agents make about 1,500 arrests tied to these types of scams and frauds.

“If the price is so low, maybe half or two-thirds less than everyone else, it's probably too good to be true,” said Ford.

She said cabins in Bryson City typically rent from $130 a night to $350 a night for a luxury cabin, not the bargain rate of $95 on the Craigslist ad.

Questions to the bank and Craigslist netted few answers. Mitch was tracked to Henrico, Virginia. Law enforcement has issued search warrants for one Bank of America branch. Craigslist's suggests reporting fraud in an FBI IC-3 report and to the FTC. But there's a problem.

“It's not an investigative agency. It's nothing more than an information data bank,” said Steve Ford, who is a retired law enforcement officer.

When the Fords reached Mitch by email, they got a nasty brush off. Burke's tactic was different, and she read News 13 part of the email she sent Mitch.

“So instead of cussing you out, seeking revenge on you, and giving the devil any more glory in this, I'm going to do the opposite. Apparently you need this money more than I do, so I'm going to just lift your name up to Jesus,” Burke read from her email.

Mitch’s response to Burke was also different.

“I'm sorry Karen, I wish I could do better with my life right now,” Mitch wrote.

He also included several frown faces, and when Burke challenged that he could do better, he didn’t respond.

But Burke's response impressed one person -- Nancy, the real owner of the pictured cabin.

“She said it's not my money involved, but it's my cabin. And I know, right now, I'm really angry he's done that,” Burke said about her conversation with Nancy.

Nancy told News 13 she didn't want to see Mitch win, so she repaid Burke’s kindness to the man who ruined her much needed mountain getaway.

“She (Nancy) was like, I want to offer you a couple of days at the cabin, all paid at my expense. It kind of helped my faith to see my response and what came back from that,” said Burke.

What are the red flags if you’re renting online?

Don't be in a rush. Legitimate companies won't force a "right now" rental.

Check with the local chamber of commerce or visitor’s bureau in the area you’re renting to see if they’re familiar with the owners or rental company before you pay.

You should always look for a second source online.

Law enforcement also recommends never paying with pre-paid gift cards or a direct bank deposit. They said you're better protected with credit.

Here’s some more recommendations from the Federal Trade Commission:

Signs of a scam

Being savvy when you’re in search of a rental is well worth the effort. Here are some signs you may be dealing with a scam:

They tell you to wire money. This is the surest sign of a scam. There’s never a good reason to wire money to pay a security deposit, application fee, first month’s rent, or vacation rental fee. That’s true even if they send you a contract first. Wiring money is the same as sending cash — once you send it, you have no way to get it back.

They want a security deposit or first month’s rent before you’ve met or signed a lease. It’s never a good idea to send money to someone you’ve never met in person for an apartment you haven’t seen. If you can’t visit an apartment or house yourself, ask someone you trust to go and confirm that it’s for rent, and that it is what was advertised. In addition to setting up a meeting, do a search on the owner and listing. If you find the same ad listed under a different name, that’s a clue it may be a scam.

They say they’re out of the country. But they have a plan to get the keys into your hands. It might involve a lawyer or an “agent” working on their behalf. Some scammers even create fake keys. Don’t send money to them overseas. If you can’t meet in person, see the apartment, or sign a lease before you pay, keep looking. What if the rental itself is overseas? Paying with a credit card or through a reputable vacation rental website with its own payment system are your safest bets.

How to report scams

If you find yourself the target of a rental scam, report it to your local law enforcement agency and to the FTC. Contact the website where the ad was posted, too.

Contacting the Secret Service

If you need to reach out to your local U.S. Secret Service office from the Mountains or Up-State South Carolina that office is in Charlotte, N.C.

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