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He thought he was renting a Key West house on Craigslist. But the house wasn’t even for rent

Florida Keys police are warning people not to fall victim to home rental scams that have claimed at least two victims recently who were grifted out of thousands of dollars after responding to bogus online ads.

In these cases, the victims answered ads on Craigslist advertising rental homes in Key West and Key Colony Beach, according to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.

One man, Julian Vergara, 28, from the Middle Keys city of Marathon, answered an ad for a Midtown house in Key West.

Vergara works as a cook at a hotel restaurant in Stock Island near Key West — about 40 minutes away from where he lives now — and wants a shorter commute.

“Lost all my earnings trying to get this place, and now I only have a few days left to find a new place,” he said in a text message Tuesday.

Between Oct. 18 and 22, Vergara wired $5,000 from his bank account to the contact person on the ad, listed as Debra Williams, who promised to mail him the keys to the house once she received the payment, according to a sheriff’s office incident report.

He also gave the person his Social Security number and date of birth because the other person said she needed to run a background check, according to the report. The keys never arrived, and Vergara drove to the house to find out what was going on only to discover a “for sale” sign posted in the front yard.

Vergara “became suspicious when he did not receive the keys and couldn’t make contact with the person he had wired money to,” Detective Mario Benedetti wrote in his report.

Bank of America, which wired the money to the fraudulent account using a digital payment network that it and other major banks use, would not refund Vergara because “he willingly sent the money,” Benedetti stated in his report.

Sheriff’s office spokesman Adam Linhardt said the agency received a similar complaint from a victim answering an ad for a rental house on 11th Street in Key Colony Beach. He did not have specific information or a report on that case.

“The other instance in Key Colony Beach was very similar,” he said.

Linhardt said that anyone with information about these and other rental scams should contact the Sheriff’s Office at 305-292-7000. Callers who wish to remain anonymous can call Crime Stoppers at 1-866-471-8477. Tipsters can remain anonymous and if a tip leads to an arrest in the case, the caller may be eligible for a cash reward. Linhardt said.

Tips may also be submitted online at www.floridakeyscrimestoppers.com or via a text message using the smartphone app called P3 Phone. Tips can also be submitted via social media such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter using the @CrimeStoppers305 hashtag.

David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald. Before joining the Herald, he covered Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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