Scammers take advantage of Fox Meadows fire victims

By Adam Strunk

NEWTON–Residents of the Fox Meadows apartment complex were targeted with a sophisticated rental scam following the fire. 

Now one resident is out of $650 dollars and another $450.

“This whole situation has been horrible,” Emma Gillmore, who was taken by the scam, said. “Going from losing half the apartment complex we’ve been living in and having a friend come live with us because he lost everything and then we all tried renting from this supposed ‘Joseph Stones’ and he took everything we had and borrowed to move.”

Gillmore lives at the Fox Meadows complex with her husband, child, and now her friend, who lost his apartment in the fire a few weeks ago. 

The group looked to find a place to live together if they had to or separately, if not. Gillmore said their lease was up in November, and with remodeling to take place at the complex, it wouldn’t be renewed. 

On the Craigslist website, Gillmore saw an ad for an apartment at 927 E Sixth Street in Newton for $450 a month. 

Her mother, Beck Baird, said she initially thought the offer was too good to be true, but her daughter is savvy, and she hoped the family had caught a break. 

“It seemed like it was too good to be true, but they had been having a string of bad luck lately, so I thought, ‘maybe God is watching out for us,’” Baird said. 

Gillmore made contact with a man going by the name of Joseph C. Stones from a number listed in the Craigslist ad. She said she wanted to move in at the start of November.

“I hear about the fire Sunday and I cannot imagine how it must feel to lose your home so I respect you and your husband,” a text from the individual going as Stones read. “Can you move in this weekend I also own own (sic) mowing services and my team will help you get move (sic) your things for free as soon as I get you approved for the place.”

Gillmore continued the conversation with the man. 

He provided her with a keycode to a lock box at the property, which opened, allowing her to get a key and tour the property which had been recently remodeled.

The friend who was living with her also contacted Stones and went through a similar process receiving a lease agreement for another property at 121 SE Sixth Street in Newton. That friend was scammed out of $450. He declined to be interviewed for the story.

Stones requested references from Gillmore and permission to do a criminal background check. He contacted Gillmore’s boss, identifying himself as a landlord. Gillmore had to provide her driver’s license number and personal information.

Stones sent over a contract for Gillmore to sign and a fake utility transfer document, masquerading as being from the City of Newton. 

Gillmore transferred $450 in payments to him through a CoinFlip ATM machine at Walmart and then emailed a receipt of the rent/deposit. The machine converts money to BitCoin and allows you to transfer that money. She also sent $200 through a cash application called Zelle. The receipt after the transfer to the Zelle account listed a person named Futuma Hussain.

She received a receipt for the rent and deposit. 

Stones set up times to meet with her at the property and never showed up. 

Eventually, when it came time to pick up the keys for the property and meet with “the maintenance team” before moving in, the code to the lock box had been changed. No one was there. The number of Stones’ was disconnected.

Scams involving out-of-state or out-of-country criminals renting properties they don’t own aren’t uncommon. However, the fact that Gillmore had access to a proper code for the lockbox piqued the newspaper’s interest enough to continue to investigate. 

Both addresses of properties involved in the scam were listed to a company called BN Properties LLC.

Harvey County Now contacted a number attached to the company and spoke with R.J. Nusz, who owns part of the company. He also called up an employee of the property management service he uses, Petra, during the interview. 

“How do you defend from this?” Nusz said. “As a property owner, I’m just worried about random people walking through your property and figuring out how to get in.”

The company he works with allows for remote access to the property by prospective tenants for tours, likely the reason why his two properties were targeted.

To reserve a tour, a prospective tenant visits a website and enters in personal identification information, such as a driver’s license number and a name. The website keeps records of who made tour requests and when. 

It then generates a code valid for two hours that can be used to open the lockbox on the house. 

The property management employee discussed working to look at who entered the property. 

Gillmore also filed a police report on the scam.

However, it’s very possible that scammers used stolen information if they were collecting it from others filling out fake lease forms.

The property management employee said the company needed to figure out a way to prevent these sorts of scams from happening, as they previously have had other issues like this in Wichita. 

Nusz also gave some advice to people looking at rentals. 

“I would look up a management company,” he said, adding that they should contact the company. “I’d say look who the property management company is, especially if they’re claiming to be the property manager, and look them up.”

As for Gillmore, she’s left looking for a place to live with the money she scraped up to move gone. 

“We’re desperately looking and hoping we can find a place before our lease ends and they renovate Fox Meadows and kick us out,” she said. 

How to avoid getting taken on housing scams

After talking to those involved as well as the Newton Police Department, we put together some tips on not falling victim to such a scam. 

  • Meet in person if you can with a landlord. If something seems fishy, especially work to meet in person.
  • Avoid wire transfer services. Most reputable landlords will have another way to pay them, whether in person or through their website. 
  • You can always call the city or use the county website to search for the owner of a property to ascertain who is renting to you is the property owner or their management service. 
  • Avoid ads on websites like Craigslist, as it provides an easy target for scammers.
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