Two different sets of would-be tenants showed up at Leah Westin’s house in late April, asking to see the room and garage she had advertised for rent at her central Napa home.
The price, $800 per unit, seemed about right. And the potential renters seemed eager to sign a lease.
There was just one problem.
Westin’s house is not for rent — not a room, not the garage — not a single part of it.
Yes, it is, the women insisted.
They showed Westin pictures of the outside of her central Napa house, taken recently. The pictures were attached to a “for rent” listing on what looked like a Facebook Marketplace ad.
The women, who spoke Spanish, said they had been communicating with Westin’s husband about the rentals via a messaging app. Westin’s husband invited them to visit the house, they explained, showing her messages they’d exchanged.
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“No,” she said. “My husband did not,” place an ad anywhere to rent a room in their house or garage, she said.
“They were upset (and) really confused,” said Westin of the women, who were accompanied by a young girl who spoke both Spanish and English.
“It started occurring to me it was a scam,” she said.
Her visitors became upset and left, recalled Westin. She was upset too, said Westin, but “I was more angry for the people who were getting scammed.”
“I felt bad for them,” said Westin. What kind of person tries to trick someone like that?
That same day Westin called the Napa County Sheriff’s office to report the scam. (Westin lives in a county “pocket” inside the city limits.)
She shared screenshots of the fake rental listing, which included a photo of her house and her address and the name of the “landlord.” Searching on Facebook, she found an account for the man who placed the ad. His profile said he lived in Fairfield and seemed to work at an auto body shop.
She shared that information with the Sheriff’s deputy.
Westin thinks the would-be renters must have contacted the fake “landlord” after their visit, because later that same day, the photo of Westin’s house was removed from the original social media ad. For a time, her address remained on the ad, but then the ad disappeared entirely.
The next day another “tenant” arrived at Westin’s house, also asking about the fake rental.
“He didn’t speak hardly any English at all,” so Westin used Google translate to communicate.
“When he found out it was a scam, he tore out of here quickly. He wanted no part of anything.”
The visitors stopped, but over the following days, Westin noticed a number of cars driving by and slowing down to look at her house. She wondered if the fake listing was still active, perhaps on a different social media site.
This Napa mom of two, ages 16 and 21, said she has no tolerance for scammers.
“I wanted to find this guy, and have a few words.”
“You don’t mess with people like that,” said Westin. “That is just one thing that will really make me very, very mad and say all of the cuss words in one sentence.”
Additionally, “I don’t want (people) thinking I’m part,” of the scam itself, said Westin, especially since the fake ad included real photos of her house.
Napa County Sheriff spokesperson Henry Wofford acknowledged that such a situation would be extremely annoying for both homeowner and renter. Wofford said that an incident report was filed, but because no money had been exchanged (that they know of) therefore a crime had not been committed and an investigation has not been launched.
However, Wofford encouraged anyone who has been victim of such a scam to notify law enforcement.
“If money was taken whether 50 bucks or $50,000, a scam is a scam,” he said. “Call us and we would file a report immediately.”
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had some advice about avoiding such scams.
According to advice from the FTC, “scammers know that finding the right apartment or vacation rental can be hard work, and a seemingly good deal is hard to pass up. They’ve been known to game some vacation rental websites and bulletin boards. The take-away: when you’re looking for a rental, it’s caveat renter — renter beware.”
Some scammers hijack a real rental or real estate listing by changing the email address or other contact information, and placing the modified ad on another site. The altered ad may even use the name of the person who posted the original ad. In other cases, scammers have hijacked the email accounts of property owners on reputable vacation rental websites, said the FTC.
Other rip-off artists make up listings for places that aren’t for rent or don’t exist, and try to lure you in with the promise of low rent, or great amenities. Their goal is to get your money before you find out, said the FTC.
Westin said she’s not giving up on finding the man who made the fake ad.
“I’m not letting it go until I find something that proves he did it and he gets in trouble for scamming people,” she said.
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You can reach reporter Jennifer Huffman at 707-256-2218 or firstname.lastname@example.org