By John Cardinale
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (KOAT) — Taos New Mexico’s landscapes make it one of the most sought-after spots to live in the state of New Mexico.
“I grew up in this house,” said Ben Hernandez.
Currently, the Hernandez Family is calling Taos home.
“We took this photo over there in Santa Fe at the cathedral,” Ben Hernandez said.
The couple has four children. Their family is normally filled with so much joy, but recently that joy was ripped away.
“It breaks my heart to do that to innocent children. And my kids are very upset. They talk about it every day. How can someone do that to us, Mom? How could someone do that,” said Shana Hernandez.
The trouble started when the family was looking to rent a new home.
“Because of all the gang and the violence going on in Espanola we need to move out of there,” Shana Hernandez said.
After searching for hours on their phones, the family found a perfect fit in Albuquerque through a Craigslist ad. The doormat to their perfect home lay right in front of them.
“It felt like a dream come true, like a fairy tale,” said Shana Hernandez.
“He set us up for $1550 in Albuquerque,” Ben Hernandez said.
They quickly jumped on the opportunity and contacted the landlord listed on the Craigslist ad, who said the home was available.
“As far as the way he asked for payments, we didn’t think anything different,” Ben Hernandez said.
The family signed a lease for the home site unseen.
According to a complaint filed with the states Attorney General, they sent 3,000 dollars to the property owner to account for a month’s rent, application fees, and a security deposit.
They paid some of it through Apple gift cards and through PayPal which has a friends and family option.
“He texted me and he basically stated, send it friends and family. So they get the money faster,” Shana Hernandez said.
After sending the money, they signed this lease. Now, remember, they never met this property owner in person., and they still have not yet been to the home. But the time came for them to get their keys, and this where things got weird.
“He says, ‘So, there’s a lockbox.’ He says, ‘I believe it’s still there.’ So, I went to the lockbox and I said, ‘Well, how do I get to the lockbox?’ He says, ‘OK, hold on,’” Shana Hernandez said.
The landlord then told Shana Hernandez to go to American Homes 4 Rent’s website and told her to sign up to take a tour of the home, which he said would allow them to access a temporary key.
“It asked for my driver’s license, a picture of myself, and it had me like signed an agreement. Then finally my email popped up that I had a code,” said Shana Hernandez.
Shana Hernandez entered the code into the lockbox and out popped a set of keys. The property owner told her they were temporary keys and that he would drop their new set of keys off later. So, out came the boxes, and the family started moving into the home.
“I told my husband, I said, ‘I am not feeling right. There is something going on,’” Shana Hernandez said.
Shana Hernandez’s gut instinct was right.
The family received a letter that appeared to be from American Homes 4 Rent.
“We found that letter on the door,” Ben Hernandez said.
It tells the family that American Homes 4 Rent owns and manages the property, that American Homes 4 Rent has no record of a lease with the family, so they need to leave, that if they’re not gone in two days, the authorities will be contacted.
So Shana Hernandez texted the property owner, or at least the person she thought was the property owner from the Craigslist ad.
“’You scammed us,’ I said. ‘How could you do that? I have children.’ I was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And I tried calling him, and it was blocked,” Shana Hernandez said.
With no response and a notice from American Homes 4 Rent to vacate, the family’s dream of a new life was crushed. Target 7 looked up who owns the property and found the owners to be American Homes 4 Rent.
“I was telling my wife, ‘That’s not right. That’s not right for somebody to come in and just take somebody else’s property. We just got to go,’” said Ben Hernandez.
New Mexico’s Attorney General Hector Balderas says these types of scams are becoming more common in New Mexico.
“We’ve seen an increase in this type of fraudulent activity. People are becoming increasingly vulnerable because they are doing more commerce online,” Balderas said.
So how do you prevent falling victim to a rental scam?
First, the attorney general recommends you avoid ads that seem too good to be true. If the ad displays a sense of urgency, you should be wary.
Secondly, always meet the property owner in person, and avoid strictly communicating through text and email.
Finally, be smart about how you pay, don’t send money through friends and family and never use gift cards as a form of payment.
“I welcome this family to reach out to me, and we’ll get to the bottom of this,” Balderas said.
The Hernandezs have filed a complaint with the attorney general. After they were scammed, they then noticed an ad on Facebook trying to rent the same home.
Target 7 tried calling the property owner listed on the Facebook ad, and no one answered. So, we left a message. We haven’t heard back.
“He pulled the right strings at the right time, played the right tune for us. He helped make that bed for us to fall into,” Ben Hernandez said.
The Hernandez family, for now, is stuck in Taos at Ben Hernandez’s parents’ house.
“I want him to get caught. I know what I just want my money back,” Shana Hernandez said.
Unfortunately, they can’t get their money back through PayPal. Remember how we told you the scammers told them to pay through PayPal’s friends and family option?
Turns out, that kind of payment is not eligible for reimbursement, according to PayPal’s buyer protection program.
“It hurts because we basically did it for our children,” Shana Hernandez said.
While the pain of being scammed still lingers for the family.
“I went through a big depression. I cried every single day. And I feel like it’s my fault,” Shana Hernandez said.
The hernandezes are truly finding “home” doesn’t always come with and address.
“We always have fun,” said Shana Hernandez.
Target 7 reached out to American Homes 4 Rent about the situation. They told us they were surprised to hear about the scam on the Hernandez family but that they have no connection to these scammers and only limited ability to stop scammers from using their properties as bait.
In a statement they said, “Although American Homes 4 Rent does not provide comment on specific incidents, we do have a range of tools in place to counter and reduce the risk of rental scams occurring at our properties. We do not list on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and other sites where fraud is most prevalent.”
Please note: This content carries a strict local market embargo. If you share the same market as the contributor of this article, you may not use it on any platform.