Jackie Mccormick Property Management
Jackie Mccormick Property Management – Sean McCormick, left, and Alex Westhoff pose for a portrait outside the home they were robbed from in San Francisco, California, Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. McCormick and Westhoff were victims of real estate fraud in which they paid $13,000 to rent an apartment at 2630 Leavenworth from someone who didn’t actually own it. They thought they had signed a lease to move to North Beach, but instead they lost money. Jessica Christian / The Chronicle
The downturn in San Francisco’s housing market caused by the coronavirus pandemic has been a boon for thousands of renters, who have successfully negotiated lower rents with their landlords or moved into units that are at least 25% cheaper than a year ago.
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But it has also created opportunities for fraudsters to use current security measures to trick tenants eager to tap the soft goods market.
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Across the country, pandemic health restrictions have forced the digitization of rental transactions, as tenants and landlords rely on their smartphones and laptops to conduct everything from 3-D inspections to digital signatures. Property managers and tenant lawyers say the pace of fraud is picking up.
That’s what happened to Noe Valley residents Alex Westhoff and Sean McCormick, who were outbid for nearly $13,000 when they thought they had gotten the perfect two-bedroom walk-up on Leavenworth Street at the foot of Russian Hill.
In October, Westhoff and McCormick saw a Craigslist ad for an apartment in a three-unit Marina-style building between North Point and Bay streets. The apartment had a dining room and a built-in washer and dryer, which the Noe unit did not have. It had outdoor space—both a yard and a roof terrace—that became even more valuable during the lockdown. It was more spacious than their current apartment, and at $2,990, it cost $110 less per month.
“We heard about all the great rental deals and wanted to take advantage,” Westhoff said. “We wanted more space. We wanted an outdoor space. We wanted something on the bike to work. We often have friends and family from out of town visiting and thought it would be fun to be a hop, skip and a jump away from Alcatraz, Coit Tower and many good restaurants.
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Eager to check out the place, the couple contacted the rental agent listed in the ad. A few weeks later, they got a call from an agent who gave his name as Matthew Reynolds and asked them to provide their credit scores and information for a criminal background check. They were instructed to download the Rently app to secure a one-time lockbox code to complete a COVID-safe tour of the unit.
As they walked through the unit, Reynolds Facetimed them and gave a detailed rundown of all the unit’s features.
“Matthew knew so many details about the place — the layout, how to get to the roof deck, how to get to the backyard, who the neighbors were,” Westhoff said.
The couple filled out a rental application and gave Reynolds just under $6,000 for the first month’s rent and a security deposit. They also filled out a questionnaire in which they were asked how much rent they would be willing to pay in advance.
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“We really wanted the place, so we thought we could hold out for three months,” he said. “We wanted to do our best.”
The apartment Sean McCormick and Alex Westhoff thought they rented is in this building on Leavenworth Street in North Beach. Jessica Christian/The Chronicle
Soon after, Reynolds asked for two more months of rent in advance, an additional $6,000. Although they thought he was being “coercive”, they agreed they could pay for three months according to what they thought was a legally binding document, so they went along with it.
Then Reynolds asked them for another $1,500. This time they were reluctant but finally agreed to send $750 via PayPal.
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“Looking back, even at the time, that was a major red flag, but we had already signed the lease,” Westhoff said. “He said they needed money to upgrade, he mentioned his wife was sick.
On New Year’s Eve, the couple showed up at the apartment at 4:00 p.m. meet Reynolds and get the keys. He didn’t show up. A woman who came out of the building informed them that a family had recently started moving into the apartment. They tried to call Reynolds – they now realize it was a fake name – but his phone was disconnected.
SFPD spokesman Michael Andraychak said the department sees one or two fraud reports a month involving online rental ads, but this is “the first that investigators know of where the suspect, posing as a property manager, had access to the property’s lock box office and conducted a no-contact search with the victim.”
While some interactions with Reynolds were unsettling, there were plenty of details that seemed legitimate. In addition to phone conversations and text messages with Reynolds, the couple had an email exchange with someone who allegedly worked for Property Management Systems, a local company that oversees about 300 units in the city. Emails from this agent contained the company’s watermark.
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Copy of lease signed by Sean McCormick and Alex Westhoff. They thought they had signed a lease to move to North Beach, but instead they lost money. Courtesy of Alex Westhoff
Property Management Systems President Michelle Horneff-Cohen said a scammer recently concocted a scam identical to the Leavenworth one in the Sunset District.
“Historically, we would have one or two (frauds) a year, but it never got this far,” she said. “Now it has gotten to the point where these criminals are getting a lot of money from people. It breaks my heart.”
Horneff-Cohen said that before the pandemic, her company never used lockers, preferring face-to-face meetings and tours or open houses. But when the lockdown began, she reluctantly signed up with Rently to allow contactless tours.
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Tenant attorney Joe Tobener said that since the pandemic began, he has received a call about a week from a tenant who has been defrauded.
“It becomes really common and then there’s not much you can do,” he said. “There is nothing to catch up on, no insurance or meaningful assets. It’s just a sad phone call that made these tenants realize they’ve been scammed and there’s nothing we can do. It’s a matter for the police.”
He said one thing all the cases have in common is that “bogus owners almost always double down.”
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“They always go for the second bite,” he said. “And because of how desperate the housing market is, renters tend to fall for it.”
Andraychak said landlords should be wary of deals that seem too good to be true, or situations where a “rental agent” repeatedly asks to pay more money. And tenants should meet the agent or landlord in person whenever possible.
Property manager J.J. Panzer said the recent cases of scams are an “expanded, more sophisticated version” of a Craigslist scam that goes back years.
“That’s another level of stupid,” Panzer said. “It seems to be one step beyond the level of fraud that people like to pull.”
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Janan New, executive director of the San Francisco Apartment Association, said she was not surprised by the scams, given the overall increase in crime in the city.
“Crime is booming in the city right now and this is just another aspect of criminal behavior,” she said. “It’s indicative of what’s going on in our city right now.”
For now, Westhoff and McCormick could stay in the Noe Valley apartment and continue to look for a new place. They are lucky in that they are both employed and have enough savings to cover the losses, although they are struggling to get the money back from their bank.
“Imagine if the victim was someone who gave up a rent-controlled apartment, or a single parent who’s barely making ends meet,” Westhoff said. “It could have ruined someone’s life. It could have made them homeless.”
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