ATLANTA — Renting out your home to travelers is a popular way to make extra money.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Ashli Lincoln spoke to a couple of local homeowners looking to make extra cash but ended up with a big headache from a group of criminals.
Felicia Smith told Lincoln she travels for business, so she turns her McDonough home into a short-term vacation rental while she’s on the road.
“I figured, hey, I can make some extra money while I’m traveling and still have my own private residence,” Smith said.
After returning from a July work trip to find trash in her yard, she knew something was wrong.
“We walked in [and] the whole house was just trashed,” Smith said.
Smith showed Lincoln pictures of the damage, including broken furniture, ransacked closets and cigarette burns. She also installed new doors after her old ones, locked to protect personal belongings, were destroyed.
“They drilled the locks off of those areas and stole all my personal items, my identity and everything,” Smith said.
She told Lincoln that cash, purses, even her grandchild’s car seat and Social Security card are all gone, totally nearly $10,000 in theft and damage.
The online renters used fake names and a stolen credit card to book Smith’s home.
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Thanks to a broken cellphone, Smith didn’t see video doorbell footage of a parade of people going in and out of her house until it was too late.
“There were some signs there that I did miss. And when we go back and look at the video, you can see the signs,” Smith said.
By phone, the McDonough Police Department told Lincoln that even with doorbell video footage these people would be hard to find because they used fake identities for the rental.
Smith’s daughter posted video of the renters and damage on social media and was contacted by a City of South Fulton homeowner who told her that same crew used fake names to rent her property.
When Smith contacted the management company, Evolve Vacation Rentals, she learned the company does not guarantee the identity of online renters.
By email, Evolve told Channel 2 Action News that less than 0.3% of its bookings experience suspected fraudulent activity and it’s working to reimburse Smith for $5,000 in property damage.
While Evolve offers some liability coverage, it advises homeowners to protect themselves from extreme scenarios of significant damage.
“Screening tenants is the most important thing,” said personal finance podcaster Joel Larsgaard, who has several rental properties in the Atlanta area. “It’s harder with the short-term rental to vet those tenants because you’re talking about sometimes 10 or 12 tenants a month that might be coming in to stay your place.”
That why Larsgaard said knowing how a vacation rental company vets the guests who want to stay in your home is important, because every company does it differently.
“Not all of these companies are created equal, so some of their contracts have different terms and some of these companies don’t support the host in the same way,” Larsgaard said.
Smith told Lincoln a closer look at that management agreement would have made her think twice about using Evolve.
“We don’t look at the fine print,” Smith said. “I should know better.”
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