CORNING, N.Y. (WETM) — One scammer has managed to steal money from multiple people on the same Corning, New York property—all in the span of two weeks. The house was listed on various online real estate marketplaces like Zillow, CraigsList, and with listings that included pictures of the house and landlord contact information for a Daisy Dyson.

But in the case of 188 Winfield Street, the actual name of the landlord and owner of the property is Venu Yama. He is the proprietor of Venus Rentals and Real Estate in Corning. He said, “[The scam victims] are receiving a beautiful contract with my house/apartment address… and it looks like a legit lease agreement.”

Stephanie Youngs packed up her entire home, thinking she and her family of six, would be moving into a new home at 188 Winfield. She was even in the process of enrolling her kids into new schools. “All the kids’ stuff is packed up, and they were all excited to move because we need a bigger house…We were supposed to move in on Sunday,” she said. “Two of my kids, their last day at their [current] school was supposed to be [Friday].”

But when she and her husband went to the house on Thursday, March 3, three days before moving in, it wasn’t empty like they were told. Rather, the current tenant of the home, Mauro Zini, answered the door. This is the seventh time he has gotten a knock on the door like this in the past two weeks.

“[The scam victims] ask me, ‘When are you going to leave? Because I paid my security deposit,'” said Zini, explaining how these situations have typically been going. “I say that we are not leaving.”

Zini currently lives there with his wife and young daughter, and so far, none of these situations have been detrimental. But Zini says he is worried about his family’s safety in case it does. When asked what he wants the public to know, Zini was quick to respond: “188 Winfield Street is not for rent!”

Youngs followed through with the fake listing. The fake landlord told her she needed to pay $700 for a security deposit, which she was ordered to pay via gift cards.

“She [the scammer] had us do Green Dot money card,” said Young. “Like a pre-paid card that you can only [put] money on it once.” She bought the cards at Walgreens, and then—as requested—sent a picture to the scammer of the front and back, as well as the receipts.

It’s the exact same story for Sabrina Landers, another scam victim of that house. She was asked to pay the security deposit as well as one month’s rent and is now out $1,100. “The main thing is like, I’m scared to move forward,” she said.

“There has to be an awareness program in the community,” said Yamu. “I really want all potential renters to be vigilant, and I hope law enforcement can put these scammers behind bars.”

According to FTC data, gift cards have been the most frequently reported payment method for fraud since 2018. And wire fraud in the real estate and rental sector continues to be one of the most prevalent cybercrimes in the U.S. According to FBI data, there has been a 17% increase in these types of frauds from the previous year, with losses of over $200 million.

If a property has been fraudulently listed, the first thing to do is report it to the host site immediately. In a statement to NEWS10’s sister station in Elmira, a spokesperson from Zillow said in part: “Our teams use a number of different tools to prevent inappropriate content publishing, but if a listing is found to be fraudulent after it’s posted, it is removed from our site as quickly as possible.”

Jonathan Lerche, President of the Elmira/Corning Regional Association of Realtors, had the following recommendations:

  • Don’t prepay for a deposit through the internet, electronic apps, or gift cards. Make sure the transfer is through your bank or check.
  • Don’t send people money that you have not met.
  • Don’t agree to anything unless you have gone to the apartment or house for a walk-through. Pictures posted are not always true.
  • Ask the landlord for a deed, a legal document that shows proof of ownership.
  • Consider using a licensed real estate agent.
  • Zillow’s “Beware of scams and other internet fraud” page provides valuable information for internet users on how to spot red flags like requests for wire transfers and long-distance inquiries.

When in doubt, Lerche offers this rule of thumb, “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”