By Jean Cardinale
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (KOAT) – Taos New Mexico’s landscapes make it one of the most desirable places to live in the state of New Mexico.
“I grew up in this house,” Ben Hernandez said.
Currently, the Hernandez family calls Taos home.
“We took this photo over there in Santa Fe at the cathedral,” Ben Hernandez said.
The couple have four children. Their family is normally filled with so much joy, but recently that joy has been snatched away.
“It breaks my heart to do this to innocent children. And my children are very upset. They talk about it every day. How can someone do this to us, mom? How could anyone do that,” Shana Hernandez said.
Trouble started when the family was looking to rent a new house.
“Because of all the gangs and violence going on in Espanola, we have to go from there,” Shana Hernandez said.
After searching for hours on their phones, the family found a perfect fit in Albuquerque through a Craigslist ad. The doormat of their perfect home lay right in front of them.
“It was like a dream come true, like a fairy tale,” Shana Hernandez said.
“He set us up for $1,550 in Albuquerque,” Ben Hernandez said.
They quickly jumped at the chance and contacted the owner listed on the Craigslist ad, who said the house was available.
“As far as how he requested the payments, we didn’t think anything different,” Ben Hernandez said.
The family signed a lease for the invisible reception site.
According to a complaint filed with the state attorney general, they sent the landlord $3,000 to cover one month’s rent, filing fees and a security deposit.
They paid for some of it through Apple gift cards and through PayPal, which has a friends and family option.
“He texted me and he basically said send it to your friends and family so they get the money faster,” Shana Hernandez said.
After sending the money, they signed this lease. Now remember, they’ve never met this owner in person and they still haven’t been to the house yet. But the time has come for them to get their keys back, and that’s when things got weird.
“He says, ‘So there’s a safe. He says, ‘I think he’s still there.’ So I went to the vault and said, ‘Well, how do I get into the vault?’ He’s like, ‘OK, wait,'” Shana Hernandez said.
The landlord then told Shana Hernandez to go to the American Homes 4 Rent website and told her to sign up to view the house, which he said would give them access to a temporary key.
“He asked for my driver’s license, a picture of me, and he got me to sign an agreement. Then finally my email came up saying I had a code,” Shana Hernandez said.
Shana Hernandez entered the code in the safe and pulled out a set of keys. The owner told him that these were temporary keys and that he would drop off their new set of keys later. So the boxes came out and the family started moving into the house.
“I said to my husband, I said, ‘I don’t feel good. There’s something going on,'” Shana Hernandez said.
Shana Hernandez’s instinct was right.
The family received a letter that appeared to be from American Homes 4 Rent.
“We found this letter on the door,” Ben Hernandez said.
He tells the family that American Homes 4 Rent owns and manages the property, that American Homes 4 Rent has no record of a lease with the family, so they have to leave, that if they don’t leave in two days, the authorities will be contacted.
So Shana Hernandez texted the owner, or at least the person she thought was the owner of the Craigslist ad.
“’You ripped us off,’ I said. ‘How can you do that? I have children. I was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And I tried to call him, and he got blocked,” Shana Hernandez said.
Without a response and a severance notice from American Homes 4 Rent, the family’s dream of a new life was dashed. Target 7 investigated who owned the property and found the owners to be American Homes 4 Rent.
“I used to say to my wife, ‘It’s not good. It’s not right for somebody to come and take somebody else’s property. We just have to go,” Ben Hernandez said.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas says these types of scams are becoming more common in New Mexico.
“We have seen an increase in this type of fraudulent activity. People are becoming more and more vulnerable because they are doing more business online,” Balderas said.
So how do you avoid falling victim to a rental scam?
First, the Attorney General recommends that you avoid ads that sound too good to be true. If the ad displays a sense of urgency, you should be wary.
Second, always meet the owner in person and avoid communicating strictly via text and email.
Finally, be smart about how you pay, don’t send money through friends and family, and never use gift cards as a method of payment.
“I welcome this family to contact me, and we’ll get to the bottom of it,” Balderas said.
The Hernandezes filed a complaint with the attorney general. After being scammed, they then noticed an ad on Facebook trying to rent the same house.
Target 7 tried to call the owner listed on the Facebook ad, and no one answered. So we left a message. We haven’t had a response.
“He pulled the right strings at the right time, played the right tune for us. He helped make that bed we could fall into,” Ben Hernandez said.
The Hernandez family, for now, is stuck in Taos with Ben Hernandez’s parents.
“I want him to get caught. I know what I just want my money back,” Shana Hernandez said.
Unfortunately, they cannot get their money back through PayPal. Remember how we told you that scammers told them to pay through PayPal’s friends and family option?
It turns out that this type of payment is not eligible for refund, according to PayPal’s buyer protection program.
“It hurts because we basically did it for our kids,” Shana Hernandez said.
While the pain of being scammed still lingers for the family.
“I went through a big depression. I cried every day. And I feel like it was my fault,” Shana Hernandez said.
The Hernandezes really find that “home” doesn’t always come with an address.
“We always have fun,” Shana Hernandez said.
Target 7 contacted American Homes 4 Rent about the situation. They told us that they were surprised to learn of the Hernandez family scam, but that they had no connection to these scammers and had only a limited ability to prevent scammers from use their properties as bait.
In a statement, they said: “While American Homes 4 Rent does not provide comment on specific incidents, we have implemented a range of tools to counter and reduce the risk of rental scams in our properties. We do not list on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace and other sites where fraud is most prevalent.
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