This article was published in partnership with Outlier Media, a Detroit-based service journalism organization.
DETROIT — The day she made the final payment on her house last spring, June Walker could barely contain her jubilation.
“I was running around the house, just thanking God,” said Walker, 65, who had scrimped and saved for more than two years, setting aside most of her disability check, to afford the $550 a month she needed to buy the $15,000 home.
Walker had transformed the cozy brick bungalow on Detroit’s east side since arriving in early 2019. Back then, the house had no furnace, no water heater and no plumbing under the kitchen sink. The basement was filled with sewage, she said.
By this April, Walker had made most of the major repairs. She’d gotten to know her neighborhood and loved watching her grandchildren play in the backyard. And now, after decades of homelessness, she’d made the final payment on her rent-to-own lease.
“A weight just lifted off of me,” Walker said. “It’s a small little bungalow, but when you pay for something out of your sweat and labor, you feel really good about it.”
But then, two months later, an eviction letter arrived, and the crushing truth about her house began to emerge: It’s not hers.
The man who’d negotiated a lease with Walker in 2019 was not, she soon learned, the property manager he claimed to be. And the money she’d paid him every month did not, apparently, go toward the purchase of her home.
Walker, her lawyers believe, is the victim of a scam — one so common in Detroit that real estate lawyers and housing advocates say it affects as many as 1 in 10 tenants facing eviction.
A four-month investigation by NBC News and Outlier Media involving scores of property records and dozens of interviews with victims, lawyers, prosecutors, experts and government officials found that the “fake landlord” scam has menaced Detroiters for at least the past decade.
In some cases, people who have lost their house to foreclosure have kept collecting rent from tenants without letting on that they’re no longer the landlord. In others, con artists have broken into vacant houses, changed the locks, listed them for sale or rent, then collected payments from victims. Some fake sellers have even filed false deeds to make fake sales look legitimate, lawyers and experts say.
But culprits rarely face consequences, the investigation found.
The scam has thrived in a city where a foreclosure crisis decimated homeownership, leaving tens of thousands of properties vacant or in the hands of out-of-town investors, and where vulnerable residents have struggled to find quality housing.
Discriminatory lending practices, crumbling conditions and limited access to banks have put conventional home loans out of reach for many in Detroit — a predominantly Black and low-income city. And prices in the city’s rental market are so low that reputable brokers and agencies stay away, leaving many renters to fend for themselves, relying on cash transactions and rent-to-own arrangements called land contracts that make them more susceptible to fraud.
The Detroit housing landscape has become so tumultuous in recent years, with so many houses changing hands so often, that many Detroiters say they’re not sure who owns the house they live in.
“A good portion of clients will say they had no idea who they were supposed to be paying,” said Donovan McCarty, an attorney with the nonprofit Michigan Legal Services, who estimated he’d heard versions of this scam from 5 to 10 percent of the more than 200 Detroit tenants he’s represented this year.
NBC News and Outlier Media interviewed eight victims of the fake landlord scam, including tenants who said they paid rent to fake landlords, a buyer who bought a house from a fake seller, and a homeowner who lost a home she had inherited to foreclosure after a fake landlord rented it out.
Victims told of seeing their belongings trashed on the curb and of losing their life savings. One tenant, Janell Poydras, 27, said that after he confronted the man who he believed was scamming him in 2019, the man padlocked the door to his house, putting him and his family on the street, and trapping his two puppies inside, where they froze to death.
“I’m still angry about it,” Poydras said. “We didn’t have nowhere for our kids to go.”
But despite the pervasiveness of the scam and the devastating ramifications for victims, scammers are rarely caught, lawyers and officials say.
“People have gotten away with this stuff for years and years and years, and they do it because there’s no penalty for it,” said Ted Phillips, a veteran Detroit housing lawyer who said he’s referred cases to prosecutors and been told there wasn’t enough evidence.
A spokeswoman for the Wayne County Prosecutors’ Office said lawyers there couldn’t recall any recent cases against people who had fraudulently collected rent from tenants in homes they didn’t own.
The only fake landlord cases prosecutors have handled are those involving people suspected of forging or filing fake deeds with the county. The county’s deed fraud unit investigated 122 complaints in 2019, the most recent year for which it had numbers, bringing charges in 25 cases. Of those, 14 have ended in conviction.
Now, housing advocates say the need to address the problem is more urgent than ever.
The end of the federal eviction moratorium means tens of thousands of Detroiters are at risk of losing their housing in the coming months as eviction cases make their way through the courts — and scammers could be waiting for them.
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“This happens all the time and it’s going to happen more because there’s blood in the water,” said Justin Smith, an attorney who represents property owners and estimates that 7 to 10 percent of the Detroit tenants his clients have moved to evict in recent years reported falling victim to this scam.
“People are going to have to move,” he said, “and you might see scammers that view this as a very fertile ground for continuing their methods.”
The dream and the ‘euphoria’
Walker first saw her three-bedroom, one-bath bungalow in January 2019 after her previous landlord raised the rent beyond what she could afford. She was urgently seeking a new place to live.
By then, Walker had lost much of her life to a drug addiction. She’d gotten clean 11 years earlier and had reconnected with her two adult daughters, who are now mothers themselves. She was determined to buy a home for the stability it would offer her family, she said.
A friend put her in touch with a man named Maurice, who said he managed properties around the city, and he showed her the bungalow.
It was in bleak condition, Walker said, but she looked forward to fixing it up and making it her own.
Maurice told her the owner of the house was a man named Derrick and gave her a copy of the property deed, she said.
The document, which she shared with NBC News and Outlier Media, was oddly cut off and had Derrick’s last name redacted, but Walker assumed that was for privacy reasons. She’d never seen a deed before, she said, and had no idea how to look one up on her own.
She had no reason to mistrust Maurice, who had a key to the house and seemed like a straight shooter, she said.
“I was just so excited, I didn’t pay attention,” she said.
The two filled out and signed a “residential lease with an option to buy” on Feb. 8, 2019, the document shows, then Walker moved in. She didn’t notice that the owner’s address on the lease had no city or ZIP code, and she didn’t look into the company it said he worked for, City Manager Group, which does not appear to be a legally registered business in Michigan.
Walker spoke to Derrick a few times by phone. Once, when she was trying to get the utilities put under her name and discovered old water and electric bills from prior tenants, she said Derrick told her she’d need to pay them herself. She lived by candlelight, drinking bottled water, for the first weeks, she said, finally getting water in March 2019 and power in April after settling the debts, utility records show.
She tackled the repairs with the help of friends and donations, she and her friends said, replacing the rotting wood floors with new tile and wading through filthy water to snake the basement drains.
The day she made her final payment last spring was one of “euphoria,” she said. “For a person like me to be a homeowner — someone with $700 a month income — and to be able to buy a decent home on a land contract and get it finished? You know, that’s an accomplishment.”
When she reached out to Derrick about putting the deed in her name, he agreed to meet her downtown.
“I’ll be in Detroit on the 11 with your deed miss Walker,” he wrote in a text message on April 1.
But then he canceled the appointment. Walker tried to reschedule, but his phone number was out of service.
When she called Maurice, who had collected the rent in person each month, she discovered that his number, too, had gone dead.
‘Everything is lost’
The housing situation in Detroit has been chaotic since 2008, when the mortgage crisis cost more than 65,000 Detroiters their homes, a Detroit News analysis found.
That was followed by a wave of aggressive tax foreclosures that saw Wayne County officials seize one-third of all Detroit properties for tax delinquency — including homes whose owners owed as little as $1,000 in taxes. By 2017, when the county began to reform its foreclosure policies, so many Detroiters had lost their homes that a city once known as a bastion of homeownership — particularly Black homeownership — had become a majority-renter city for the first time since 1950.
As displaced Detroiters have looked for new places to live, they’ve run up against a mortgage industry wary of investing in areas with low property values. More than three quarters of all homes in the city last year were bought in cash, especially those at lower price points. These sales didn’t get the scrutiny and attention — safeguards like title searches — that mortgage companies bring to purchases.
Adding to the problem is the fact that many homes in Detroit are in gross disrepair — and would cost more to renovate than they’d generate in rent. That’s created incentives for investors to sit and wait, leaving properties vacant. And it’s left tens of thousands of unwanted, often blighted properties in the hands of the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which was created by the city to manage vacant properties and return them to productive use.
Critics say the Land Bank — which owns over 64,000 empty lots and 13,000 houses, making it the city’s largest property owner — bears some of the blame for the pervasiveness of the fake landlord scam for failing to keep tabs on its properties.
The authority acknowledges that it isn’t always able to make contact with people living in the estimated 2,400 occupied houses it owns, allowing scammers to break into the houses, then credibly pose as landlords.
“We are certainly limited by size, scope and budget,” Alyssa Strickland, a spokeswoman, said, adding that the authority is “working diligently every day to connect with people living in Land Bank-owned houses.”
The Land Bank created a one-person Real Property Integrity Unit early last year to investigate reported scams and has since referred 10 cases to police, Strickland said.
Some of those cases are now part of a deed fraud investigation that the police are pursuing, department officials say.
“We’re doing everything we can to hold these individuals accountable,” said police Capt. Gerry Johnson Jr., adding that the department is aware of the prevalence of the scam but says these cases are “very complex” and often involve people using fake names and IDs.
Mayor Mike Duggan’s office referred questions to Lawrence Garcia, the city’s top lawyer, who said he’d “tripped across” anecdotal examples of the scam when he was in private practice but hadn’t put much thought into the problem since joining the administration in 2018. He suggested some city housing initiatives announced this year could help, including a program — funded with Covid relief dollars — to make lawyers available to tenants facing eviction.
“There’s no way that the landlord is going to be in compliance with the rental registration ordinance if they don’t even own the land,” he said.
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As for police, it’s not clear how often they even hear about scams. Of the eight victims interviewed by NBC News and Outlier, only one contacted authorities. Others said they feared retaliation from their scammers.
Poydras, the renter who said he lost two puppies, said he didn’t call the police because he doesn’t trust them.
McCarty, from Michigan Legal Services, said many of his clients are too focused on finding new housing to file a report. He said he’s never notified the police either, since scammers seem to disappear behind fake names and disconnected numbers.
“We’ve all become resigned to the fact that this happens all the time,” McCarty said.
“We kind of say to clients, ‘Look, you got screwed. Let’s move on. We can help place you in housing, help you negotiate something with the current owner, but there’s no way you’re getting that money back.’”
When police do get involved, it’s usually because they’ve gotten a call from a homeowner complaining about squatters in their house, but that often doesn’t end well for the tenants, said Phillips, the lawyer who also leads United Community Housing Coalition, a housing assistance organization.
“Often, the police response will be ‘You gotta get out’ and everything is lost,” Phillips said, adding that many scam victims never even get a chance to plead their case in court because police push them out, seeing them as squatters, rather than tenants entitled to the legal protections of the eviction process.
“That’s devastating,” Phillips said. “Just imagine everything you own being on the curb or in a big dumpster.”
Police department guidelines call on officers to refer these cases to the courts rather than remove people from their homes, Johnson said.
When Derrick and Maurice disappeared in April, Walker began to get worried.
She knew something wasn’t right.
Then, in June, she opened her mail and found a summons accusing her of trespassing and ordering her to appear in housing court. She checked the envelope to make sure it had her name on it.
“It had to be a mistake,” she said. “I had purchased the house. I had every receipt. I had the lease. You know, I’m 65 and you send people stuff like that they’re liable to have a heart attack.”
It wasn’t until she appeared at her virtual court date in July and connected with a lawyer that she learned she may have been the victim of a scam.
The lawyer assigned to her through the city program for tenants facing eviction informed her that the owner of her house was not a man named Derrick.
When Walker moved into her bungalow in 2019, records show the owner was a Pennsylvania company called RHMS Group, which bought the house in a 2017 county tax auction for $8,500.
RHMS, which owns nearly 70 properties around Detroit, sold the house on June 2 to a Florida company called Boccafe LLC for $25,000.
Three weeks later, court records show, Boccafe filed eviction papers.
The company had no idea Walker had been making payments on the house, said attorney Randy LeVasseur, whose firm represents both Boccafe and RHMS.
Walker was baffled by the timing of the sale, which occurred after she spent two years improving the house and paying off the contract.
“I’ve been here, openly,” she said. “How did they not even drive down the street and look at the house anytime in three years? It was just, ‘This is Detroit and we don’t care. We got this house and we’re going to let it sit there vacant, all messed up, destroying other people’s property values.’”
Martin Szumanski, the president of RHMS, said he believed his house was vacant from 2018 until he sold it in June.
Szumanski, who lives in California, said he’d spent $15,000 renovating the property in 2018 but declined to produce records of that work. When told of the condition Walker said she found the house in 2019, Szumanski said he had been scammed by a contractor who billed him for renovation work that was never completed. (The contractor denied this, saying he and Szumanski had disagreed about construction costs.)
Szumanski said he travels to Detroit several times a year to keep tabs on the company’s houses, though he’s not certain whether he visited Walker’s house.
“Detroit is remarkably shady,” Szumanski said. “The reason this is happening in Detroit is because there’s an unfortunately naive population there who doesn’t know their rights and they don’t know how to research things or look into things and there’s shady people who are trying to take advantage of that.”
Walker’s July court hearing was brief, she said.
When she told the judge she believed she was the home’s owner, the judge told her to talk with her attorney and postponed a decision on eviction.
‘Some kind of safety net’
The housing scam happens so often that Alysse Miller, the Land Bank’s program manager for occupied houses, estimates that 1 in 5 people who call about the authority’s Buy Back program are residents who’d been paying the wrong person to buy or rent their home.
The Buy Back program, which Miller runs, allows residents of Land Bank houses to become homeowners if they can prove a legitimate tie to that house and meet other requirements, such as attending homeownership classes and making a $1,000 down payment.
Many applicants are former owners or tenants who remained in a house after a foreclosure.
But a sizable number, Miller said, are people who were scammed.
Among scam victims the Land Bank has helped is a mother of four who, in 2018, gave $800 to a man who said he could sell her a duplex on Detroit’s west side.
The victim told the Land Bank that she drove with the man to four places: The library, where he printed out a blank deed transfer form; her bank, where the pair signed the form and had it notarized; the Wayne County Register of Deeds, where they filed the form; and the tax assessor’s office, where they listed the victim as the taxpayer.
The “quit claim deed” the pair registered that day is still on file with the county. The document was properly notarized.
But, legally, it was meaningless. The house had fallen into foreclosure in 2012 and had been owned by the Land Bank since 2014, records show.
While most victims never recover the money they lost, Miller said the mother of four was able to take ownership of her house through the Buy Back program.
People scammed in privately owned homes — like Walker — have no such option.
That’s why advocates say Detroit leaders need to take aggressive steps to prevent scams, starting with a thorough review of the city’s housing protections.
“We need a statewide systems change to be able to stabilize housing in Detroit and we need everyone working together on this,” said Anika Goss, who leads Detroit Future City, an economic development think tank.
Jim Schaafsma, a housing attorney with the Michigan Poverty Law Program, called for a robust information campaign to alert people to the scam and to “the value of doing a title search to make sure the person you’re dealing with has the authority to legally conduct this transaction.”
The city needs to arm nonprofits and churches with the tools to provide housing advice to people before they buy or rent, said Lee Anne Adams, the senior vice president for national initiatives with NeighborWorks America, which launched a program last year called StopHomeScams.org.
And Detroiters also need access to legal counsel when facing eviction — even after the Covid relief dollars dry up, Phillips said.
‘Justice has to be done’
The next hearing in Walker’s eviction case is scheduled for Friday.
Phillips, who is part of Walker’s legal team, said that unless Walker can prove a connection between the man she was paying and the property’s former owner, she’s not likely to be able to claim ownership.
Her best option might be to work out a deal to buy or rent the house from the current owner, he said, but it’s not clear if the owner will agree.
LeVasseur, the attorney for Boccafe, filed a motion on Oct. 20 asserting that despite claiming in court last summer that she owns the property, Walker had not shared valid proof of that claim.
Scams like these don’t only affect tenants, LeVasseur said in an interview last month. They also create headaches for property owners stuck with tenants they didn’t choose. In some cases, his homeowner clients work out a deal to allow tenants to stay; other times, he said, “we have to arrange for a move out.”
As Walker prepared for the hearing, she said she wished she’d had a place to turn for help — both when she signed her lease and later, when she had trouble getting the deed put in her name.
“There should be some kind of safety net, step by step, to tell you what to do,” she said. She believes the city should have a fund to help people who are victimized.
She said she wouldn’t even consider the possibility of leaving her home.
“Justice has to be done. Period,” she said. “We’ve got to come up with a remedy for this, and it’s got to be justice.