Vancouver couple victims of home scam

Detective: Prospective buyers make off with their possessions

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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After living in Clark County's Green Meadows neighborhood for decades, an elderly Vancouver couple decided to move to Phoenix, Ariz. They sold their home to a younger, charming couple and allowed them to lease the house before the sale was finalized.

But, the check bounced on the purchase of the property and the younger couple never paid their lease on the home. They scammed the homeowners, temporarily kept them out of their home and took their furnishings before eventually getting evicted.

The swindle was quite sophisticated, said Clark County sheriff's Det. Kevin Harper.

The couple faces possible charges of first-degree theft, unlawful issuance of checks or drafts, and four counts of forgery. Harper said he hopes to find them in the next couple of days.

The names of those involved were not released.

Harper said the scammers approached the real estate agent for the home on Northwest Par Lane, which backs up to the Club Green Meadows golf course. They said they wanted to buy the home and move in right away. The couple falsified bank account and income statements, along with wire fund transactions, Harper said. One document said the woman earned $5,400 monthly. When Harper contacted the employer, he learned she had been fired in April and never earned that much income when she worked there.

According to Harper, he scammers convinced the homeowners to let them lease the home for a short period before the sale was official. This was done behind the agent's back. When the elderly couple signed the lease agreement, the scammers scooped up all of the copies. Realizing he didn't have a copy of the agreement, one of the homeowners asked for a copy of the lease he signed. He was emailed back an altered copy — one that said he would provide free rent for a year and pay all property taxes, Harper said.

Harper said the documents were clearly altered; the page numbers didn't line up, the fonts were different and the footer was missing on one of the pages. Still, to get the lease invalidated took legal action

In the interim, the couple was living in the house for free and there was no immediate recourse the homeowners could take to get back their property.

Through the lease agreement, the homeowner couldn't kick them out or even step on the property. Although the sale didn't go through, they still had to overturn the lease, which cost thousands of dollars. A note on the front door read: "Go away. We're not getting out till the eviction."

The homeowners left their belongings in the home, some of which they planned to sell. But the new occupants brought in a PODS storage container and started hauling out the homeowners' belongings.

Harper said one of the homeowners parked in a neighbor's driveway and watched as about $5,000 worth of furnishings and belongings were dragged into a PODS storage container in front of the house. Among their most treasured possessions was crystal from Ireland, Harper said.

After thousands of dollars in legal fees, the younger couple was finally served an eviction notice. When Harper went to the house on the morning of Nov. 19 — the date of the eviction — the couple had already left with the storage container full of belongings of the older couple.

The younger couple has been evicted from two other properties, Harper said, and knows how to work the court system; when they were evicted from a home in 2012, they drug out the process for months, living rent-free the whole time.

Homeowners can take preventive measures and look for red flags before selling their home. If potential homebuyers are pushy and move the process along as quickly as possible, there's probably a reason for it, Harper said.

"Don't get rushed into anything," he advised. "Don't let anyone talk you into moving in before there's an ironclad lease."

Taking the time to run credit checks and verify financial information can prevent homeowners from getting swindled. It's particularly important to get the buyer's financial information if it's a cash sale, rather than a financed sale.

The couple, after getting evicted, attempted to pull the same scam on another home seller, Harper said. However, the real estate agents for both houses happened to work in the same realty office, and stopped the scam before anything bad happened.