As self-guided tours grow in popularity, scammers target lock boxes and renters’ cash

Problem Solvers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Tonya Smith desperately needed a home for her and her children and was estactic when she believed she found on Facebook Marketplace. It was near the city’s trendy 39th Street shopping area.

“There was a number, and I contacted them,” Smith said.

After a few questions from a man who said he was the landlord, Smith received the code to the lock box on the home’s front door. The landlord apologized for not being able to show her the house himself, claiming he was in Florida. 

“It was spacious, very beautiful on the inside, everything I’m looking for to call home,” Smith said.

What Smith didn’t realize was that she was about to be scammed.

Scammers have figured out how to get access to lock box codes so that prospective renters never realize they’re dealing with a thief, not a landlord.

So how did Smith’s scammer get the code to that lock box? The same way many scammers do — by signing up for a self-guided tours. After entering a credit card number (scammers often use stolen ones) and answering a few questions, you’re given a one-time code which expires after about an hour.

It’s a perfect set up for a scammer, and those who fall victim really pay the price.

“He wanted $1,600,” Smith said.

It was supposedly for first and last month’s rent, an amazing price for an entire house in Kansas City.

At $800, for a house as nice as this one, Smith didn’t want to risk losing the deal even as it started to get strange.

For example, the scammer told Smith he was in Florida and couldn’t collect the money in person. She would need to send it to him via a bitcoin machine inside a Shell station on Broadway near 36th Street.

That was red flag No. 1. No legit landlord we know of would ever collect a payment via an untraceable form of currency like bitcoin.

The scammer also gave her step-by-step instructions on how to do the transaction and told her he would email her the lease after he got the money.

That’s red flag No. 2. Never hand over a deposit until you have a signed lease in hand.

Smith finally realized something was up when the greedy scammer demanded even more money — an additional $650 to remove the lock box.

She refused. She immediately returned to the house where she met another prospective renter who was dealing with the same creep.

“We told her don’t do it,” Smith said. “It’s a scam.”

FOX4 Problem Solvers contacted the scammer, posing as a prospective customer.

He sent us to a house near the Plaza on Kenwood, which also had a lock box — and a warning posted on it about scammers. We had to sign up for a self tour on rently.com. We didn’t bother going inside, but asked the scammer how he wanted us to pay.

The answer: bitcoin!

This scammer is one busy dude. He has sent so many people to the house that Smith tried to rent that neighbors put up a sign on the front door warning people. 

Phillip Syrios is the real owner of the house. He also owns the real estate management company renting it — 333rent.com. Syrios deactivated the lock box as soon as he learned of the scam and was happy to talk to FOX4.

“Different forms of the same scam have been happening for a very long time,” Syrios said. “It keeps evolving and getting trickier and more difficult to find.”

Syrios said the coronavirus has prompted many real estate companies to use self-guided tours. He said he had few problems with the tours — until now.

Syrios felt horrible when he learned what happened to Smith and wants to warn others.

“They think they found the perfect situation, and then it turns into a nightmare because their one chance at getting a nice house and their deposit is now gone and they’ve gone from a not good situation to an even worse situation,” Syrios said.

He plans to place an alert on his lock boxes, warning people about scammers — many of whom are believed to based overseas. Nigeria is one of the most popular countries for bitcoin scams,

Meanwhile Smith is out $1,600, making it even more unlikely she’ll find a home any time soon.

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