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Arlington couple sounds alarm on internet rental scam

When Penrose resident Pete Giannino answered his doorbell one day this March, he was surprised to see his neighbors standing there, looking concerned.

“They said, ‘Hey, are you guys planning on renting your home?’ And I said, ‘No. Why do you ask?’ And they pointed out there was a listing on Zillow or Redfin for our home that we own,” Giannino told ARLnow.

Now, the local couple is sounding the alarm on an internet rental scam falsely advertising that their 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom home on the 600 block of S. Wayne Street is on the market. They say the scam appears to target people who are lower-income or who speak limited English and has defrauded several people and families.

In the last six months, Giannino and his wife, Kate Colwell, said upwards of 20 people have come to their door asking to tour the house while another half-dozen have contacted them via social media. They say the home is listed as available for rent, for $2,400 a month, on real estate and social media platforms, including Zillow and Facebook.

Giannino and his wife have gotten many fraudulent listings removed from mainstream real estate websites. Despite seeking help from law enforcement, they’ve struggled to eliminate listings on Facebook Marketplace, where scammers continue messaging potential renters.

“We’re just really angry that this person on the internet is cheating people, stealing from people,” Colwell said. “There’s no accountability and we really want them to be stopped.”

Rental scam depicting house on S. Wayne Street on Facebook Marketplace (courtesy Kate Colwell)

Giannino and Colwell are convinced they are not the only ones to whom this is happening. When Giannino filed a police report in late March, an Arlington County Police Department detective told the couple he had heard of similar scams happening to other newer homeowners in the area.

On April 5, Giannino said he got his hopes up after the detective said the department’s financial crimes unit would handle the case. About a month later, he got a letter in the mail from the police department stating that their case was closed.

The department did not immediately respond to ARLnow’s request for comment.

“In a rage, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’And just like, I threw it away because I was just so upset by the fact that they were turning a blind eye to this,” he said.

Meanwhile, strangers asking to tour their home continue knocking on their door. So far, Giannino and Colwell say most do not speak English as their first language and there will typically be a translator with them.

Colwell noted that one Hispanic couple who came to their door in early April said they paid a $1,800 security deposit.

“She had like text conversations with the scammer. She had phone conversations with the scammer… and they showed up for the tour. And we’re like, ‘Oh, we’re here for the tour,” Colwell said.

While it’s been emotionally draining to keep turning away hopeful renters, Colwell said that any “annoyance or discomfort we feel with people wanting a tour of the house… pales in comparison to how it feels actually to lose your hard-earned savings.”

Giannino said he had filed an addendum to the initial police report to try and get ACPD to reopen the case.

But, just in case, the couple has also filed a complaint with the FBI.

In the interim, Giannino and Colwell have posted signs in front of their house and spreading the word to prevent more people from falling victim.

“It’s a good thing to shine a light on it, too, because it’s harder for an internet criminal to operate [than in the] darkness,” Colwell said.

Hat tip John Antonelli

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