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DIGGING DEEPER: Rental scam designed to take your money

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) - Imagine packing everything to move into a new home, only to find out the deal you made, was with a crook.

It's a scam you'll find all across the country, one that uses actual rental properties to trick you out of hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

That rental scam victimized Vanetta Lewis. She was looking forward to moving to the Summit City with her family. But her new start here in Northeast Indiana has been derailed. She now has no where to go.

The Better Business Bureau says it's a swindle they've seen before.

Lewis grew up in Wisconsin, moved to Indianapolis, before deciding to head back north a bit, landing in Fort Wayne.

She came across a home at 4910 N. Bend Drive. It was exactly what she was looking for.

Lewis showed up to the home with her U-Haul packed full of her belongings. It was suppose to be move in day.

"Where I was going to sleep, how I was going to eat, how I was going to feed my kids wasn't in my plans because I thought I was going home," said Lewis. "We get to this house and there is a whole family in this house," she added.

A family was already living in what she thought was her new home. She paid $2400 to the person she thought owned the property.

Lewis said, "I told my kids this was my Christmas gift from me to them was this house. A house that I don't even have."

Lewis worked double shifts as a certified nursing assistant to come up with the funds. She found the home on Zillow, paid through Zelle, a cash transfer app, and Walmart gift cards.

She received a lease agreement, and at the bottom, the homeowner's name was signed- Steven Fortriede.

"The day that I pay my luck and take my chance. This is what happens," she said.

Lewis wasn't sure what to do when she didn't have a place to live. She said, "we rode around trying to find a pawn shop. I pawned 2 TVs, my daughter pawned her iPod. That was enough to get me storage and 2 nights at this hotel."

Lewis and her family have been staying at the Rodeway Inn with her kids crammed into a room. A mini fridge and a microwave are the only kitchen appliances.

ABC21 spoke with Steven Fortriede who owns the home on N. Bend Drive, but it wasn't his signature on the lease agreement.

"Obviously someone used my name and info from somewhere to take this woman's money," said Fortriede.

"I got a call from the police at 9-30 at night saying my renters showed up at the house and that there was somebody living there," he said

Fortriede knew something was up, but from that initial complaint, he thought his actual renters went on vacation and came home to find squatters. He soon realized that wasn't the case.

"Here's somebody who's pulled up roots. Police didn't tell us who or what, they just said a family in a u-haul. You can pretty much gather from that, that somebody has really been depending on this," said Fortriede.

Lewis isn't the only one targeted in a scam like this. The BBB says this scam happens all across the country, and often. The home on N. Bend Drive was used twice.

At least one other would-be renter, who asked not to be identified, was contacted by the same scammer regarding the North Bend Drive property. The person was given the same story, and asked to send payment the same way.

She caught on in time, but the BBB says many people aren't so lucky.

In 2019 the BBB reported that 5.2 million people were ripped off through rental scams. The median loss was $400, but a third of people victimized lost at least $1000. The total losses reported, was about $37.6 million.

"If those numbers are reported, there are probably more," said Nichole Thomas with Northern Indiana BBB.

In Lewis' case she lost over $2400. "It's very hard but I am here and I just have to get over this hump. I just don't know how," she said.

"This really is evil. This really is an evil person doing this. I try to speak well of people most the time. This is someone doing the wrong things, no matter the reasons," said Fortriede.

If you would like to help Lewis and her family a link to the gofundme is here.

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Kaitlyn Kendall

Kaitlyn Kendall anchors ABC21 news at 5 and is the chief investigative reporter for the stations Digging Deeper team.

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