PLANTATION, Fla. - First, Janita Mathis said she and her husband were devastated. Then the couple was served with a lawsuit.
According to the complaint filed by Invitation Homes, Mathis and her family have no right to be in the home they rented. They moved in early July.
"We are stuck," Mathis said.
Mathis said she found the listing on Craigslist and contacted the number associated with the listing.
"I asked a lot of questions, and he gave us access (to the home) with a code to come look at the house," she said.
Mathis said a man she knew as Albert Shawn claimed he lived out of state but was the owner of the Plantation home.
She said he sent her three different codes for the electronic keypad lock on the front door -- two for each time Mathis and her family toured the house and another the day they moved in.
"Once we decided we liked it, (Albert) wanted a deposit," Mathis said. "(Albert) told us (to use) Western Union or put (the money) in his account."
Mathis said she was even provided routing and account numbers.
We're told someone claiming to be Shawn's lawyer emailed Mathis a rental application, which she filled out.
She and her family also sent their alleged new landlord the first and last month's rent, nearly $5,000, but held off on giving the $1,000 security deposit he requested.
Shawn said he and his wife would come to Plantation with the leasing documents and the keys to the home.
Mathis was curious: How were she and her family supposed to get in and out of the house?
"He said the garage door opener is in the kitchen, in a drawer -- told us exactly where it was," Mathis said. "He said, 'Use that until we get there.'"
Shawn never showed, but Mathis did get a visit from the pool man.
"I went out there. I said, 'Oh, Albert sent you?' He said, 'Albert who?' I'm like, 'Albert Shawn, the owner?’ He's like, 'No, Invitation Homes pays me,'" Mathis said.
Mathis said she went inside, looked up Invitation Homes and made a phone call to its local office.
She said she spoke with an employee of the home leasing company.
"I'm like, 'Who's this Albert?' He says: 'We don't know who he is. Call the police.' So that's what I did,'" Mathis said.
Mathis filed a report with the Plantation Police Department that same day.
"Is it an inside job?" Mathis asked. "Someone has to give this guy (an access) code. Someone has to have the email where you're sending people applications."
Shawn did not answer when the Leave it to Layron team tried calling.
Minutes later, he sent a text message:
"Hello, sorry I missed your call. Are you calling for my property for rent?” the text read.
We replied by telling him we were interested in the property he'd "leased" to Mathis. We were told the property was already "secured by another applicant."
But Shawn told us he had another property that would interest us and provided us an address to another four-bedroom, three-bathroom home in Plantation.
He texted again: "The keys are here with me but prior to the time you will be getting the keys, you can take a drive by the property, view the exterior and try looking through the windows."
The Leave it to Layron team looked up the address he provided. The Broward County property appraiser's website shows Invitation Homes as the owner of the property. The LITL team not only stopped by the address, but also checked with Invitation Homes and learned the home is currently occupied by renters.
Shawn sent a few more messages, including this one: "I and my wife will be coming in person to collect the first month rent and getting to know more about you."
He eventually returned our phone call.
We asked if he was affiliated with Invitation Homes and he said, "Yes."
When we told him who we were and asked how he was affiliated with the company, he told us he'd contact the company and get back with us. He hung up, and we haven't heard from him since.
In its complaint, Invitation Homes said Shawn is not affiliated with them in any way.
We've learned the company does provide access codes to renters interested in self-touring a property. Those codes expire after a set period of time.
A spokesperson provided us with this statement: "We are always frustrated to discover that one of our homes has been used for these types of scams, which can have a devastating effect on the victims. Our goal, as always, is to offer quality homes and ensure our residents have great experiences. We encourage any consumer interested in renting one of our homes to contact us directly via our website at InvitationHomes.com. We also advertise on a variety of trusted home listing sites like Zillow, Trulia, Redfin and others (we do not advertise on Craigslist). In addition, we offer information on fraud prevention at www.invitationhomes.com/fraud-prevention.
"Invitation Homes understands the difficult situation this family is in. Unfortunately, they are living in the home without a lease with us and are unable to meet the leasing requirements. We have tried to work constructively with the family, including offering them a financial incentive that would defray their expenses to move to a legal residence. We regret that they did not accept this offer, which would have prevented us from having to take additional legal action to reclaim the home."
The statement noted the company is working with local law enforcement and urged prospective residents to follow the fraud prevention measures on its website.
The Mathis family retained an attorney to help fight the lawsuit.
"I don't want this to ever happen to anyone," Mathis. "This has got to stop."
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