A suburban Chicago couple who rushed across the country during a family emergency found themselves stood up in Seattle after signing a short-term apartment lease, then spent weeks trying to recover their security deposit. Consumer advocates said phony online apartment listings are part of a growing problem impacting would-be renters nationwide.
Mike Wirtjes of Downers Grove said his 26-year-old stepson, Jake, suffered a traumatic brain injury and a collapsed lung during a car accident in October. Wirtjes’ wife, Vanessa Pollock , immediately flew to Seattle to be by her son’s side as he fought for his life in a hospital.
“The prognosis was this going to be a long, drawn-out process,” Wirtjes said.
Wirtjes said he thought it was necessary to find his wife a short-term apartment lease in Seattle in order to give her peace of mind.
“I found an apartment that stood out. It looked clean. It was close to the hospital. It was reasonably priced for the Seattle area,” Wirtjes said.
Wirtjes said he had a phone conversation with someone whom he thought was the property owner. The two also communicated via texts and emails and discussed a short term lease. Wirtjes said he asked to view the apartment before signing a lease, but the property owner told him he was out of town. Still, Wirtjes said he signed a lease and sent a $3,600 security deposit to the assumed landlord’s attorney’s bank account to hold the apartment. He said he did this with the understanding that he could back out of the lease if the apartment was not suitable.
“He couldn’t be there for another week and again I’m thinking she (Vanessa) needs this now so I agree to go forward with the rental agreement,” Wirtjes said.
But when it was time to pick up the keys and meet the landlord, Wirtjes and his wife said the man did not show up. The couple said they later discovered there was no apartment for lease in the building.
“We had all of our bags and all of our things and we were standing on a street corner with nowhere to go,” Wirtjes said.
The couple said they notified police and contacted the actual building owner, who removed the fake apartment listing. Wirtjes also reached out to the bank where he sent the security deposit, Wells Fargo, to inquire about recovering his money.
“They indicated to me that I could go to my local branch here in Chicago to recover the funds,” Wirtjes said.
However, he said the process was not easy.
“I jumped around from department to department,” Wirtjes said.
NBC 5 Responds asked Wells Fargo to investigate and a spokesperson told us the bank sympathized with Wirtjes’ situation. Soon after NBC 5 Responds got involved, Wirtjes and his wife received a cashier’s check for $3,600.
“While we attempted to assist him in resolving his claim, clearly we came up short in those efforts,” the spokesperson said. “We have reimbursed Mr. Wirtjes due to the difficulty we inadvertently caused by providing inaccurate information about the claims process.”
Wirjtes said the returned money is a “huge relief” in light of so many recent unplanned expenses.
As for Vanessa, a hospital employee helped her find a short-term apartment while she remained in Seattle to care for Jake. She said her son is now back in Chicagoland recovering more and more every day.
The Better Business Bureau said hundreds of scams impacting would-be renters nationwide are reported each year. However, the BBB said officials believe many more rental scams go unreported.
According to the BBB website, the proliferation of online real estate and vacation rental sites make it easy for scammers to steal photos and descriptions of real places. The BBB said prospective renters can be lured by the promise of low rents, extra amenities, great locations and other perks.
Wells Fargo said customers can protect themselves from these scams by never sending payment for a rental property they have not seen in person and by avoiding to send advance payment by wire or other options that are difficult to trace.
Wirtjes wrapped up his family’s experience by calling out the person who posted the online rental listing.
He said, “I really don’t understand how anyone can take advantage of a family, a person, in need, whose gone through traumas that nobody should ever have to go through.”