LOS LUNAS — A Los Lunas man and his family lost thousands of dollars in a rental scam recently and are warning others to be wary.

The hunt for a new place to rent took Anthony Valdez to the online real estate and rental marketplace, Zillow.com.

“We found a place. It looked nice and we got really excited,” Valdez said. “Because we found it on Zillow, that’s where a lot of the trust came in. It looked legit. There are only nice houses listed. It didn’t look like the kind of site that just anyone can throw a house on there.”

He made contact through the site with a man he thought was the owner of the home. Valdez said he was told there were currently renters in the home but they were moving out, and the owner would need about a week to get it cleaned and ready.

“He said they needed to clean so there will be cars there. He was covering his bases,” Valdez said.

Without meeting the owner, the family put down a deposit on what they thought would be their new home.

“With (the) corona(virus) and everything, I didn’t think it was odd,” he said. “He sent a rental agreement, pictures of what was supposed to be the inside of the house. He even sent pictures of his military ID, which probably wasn’t even his.”

The amount of information made Valdez and his wife comfortable with the situation and so they waited for the keys. It came down to the last day in their old place and Valdez pushed for the keys again.

“He said he would overnight the keys. The next day we were moving out,” he said. “The keys didn’t show up, and then he said a friend mailed the keys and it would be a few days. He was just pushing things further and further.”

As the situation began to unravel, Valdez’s wife went to the house they thought they were moving into. When she knocked on the door, the woman who answered it said she was not the first person to do so.

“We were like the fifth. She said the house wasn’t for sale or rent,” Valdez said. “That’s when it fell apart. We had nowhere to go.”

Friends rallied and got everything out of the old house and into storage for the family, Valdez said.

“I didn’t have clothes for two days; it was a bit of a disaster,” he said.

Valdez, his wife and their 13-year-old son were able to quickly move in with his parents, along with their three dogs, two cats and guinea pig.

“My dad has been excellent. He’s calling all his friends and we might have found a place,” he said. “We sunk everything we had into this. We had just enough to get through the month and get going. We should be able to get back on our feet because we’re getting help. That part has been amazing. I’m blown away; everyone has been there for us.”

Valdez, who works at the Valencia County Animal Shelter in Los Lunas, said his coworkers were extremely supportive and helped him deal with the stress.

All total, counting the money sent to the scammer, the costs of renting a storage unit and a last-minute moving truck, the family lost about $3,500.

A GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help them try to recoup the losses. Search for “Help us help Anthony get a place to live! Scammed!”

Valdez reported the scam to the Los Lunas Police Department and is hopeful.

“The guy gave us a bank account and routing number, which we gave to the detectives,” he said. “They seemed pretty happy about.”

Once the couple realized they’d been taken advantage of, they Googled the address of the house. It showed up on numerous other real estate websites as available for rent.

“Be safe. You don’t want to be sorry. You can social distance while meeting somebody,” Valdez advised. “Don’t put faith in some of these websites that seem trustworthy.”

To check the validity of a rental property, Los Lunas realtor Nancy Montoya said there are a few things people can check. First, is checking the property ownership through public records available at the Valencia County administrative offices or by looking at the Valencia County assessor’s parcel map.

Montoya also strongly recommends taking a personal tour of the property rather than a virtual one when it’s possible.

“Definitely, don’t give money to an individual; go through a property manager or a rental company,” Montoya said. “You can also ask reputable realtors to research a property. I’ve gotten calls asking if a place was for sale or rent.

“Even checking with neighbors (to the property). The neighbors always know what’s going on.”

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.