Apartment scam leaves single mom homeless


Published: Friday, July 26, 2013 at 7:21 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 at 7:21 p.m.

Alachua County sheriff’s investigators are seeking the public’s help in tracking down a woman who scammed up to five Gainesville apartment hunters out of more than $3,000.

The woman luring the scam victims with Craigslist ads and false yard signs before showing and offering them a vacant apartment to rent that was actually being marketed by a legitimate real estate broker.

Jennifer Cowart, 35, a single mother of two boys — ages 7 and 8 — is one of three victims who contacted the Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday to report the fraud, sheriff’s officials said.

Cowart works as shift manager at the McDonald’s on Archer Road and said she gave the woman all the money she had in order to secure the apartment located at in Woodside Villas, 7200 SW Eighth Ave. Cowart and two other victims contacted ASO to report they had each been defrauded out at least $1,000.

Cowart said her ordeal began on July 12 when she noticed a sign at the entrance of the apartment complex advertising the apartment for rent. When she called the number on the sign, she spoke with a woman who identified herself as Shannon McCleary. Cowart and the woman met that afternoon and the woman promised Cowart that if she paid her a $600 deposit, the apartment would be held for a couple of weeks until Cowart could come up with additional money for the first month’s rent.

What Cowart would later learn is that earlier that morning, the same woman had met with a man who called her in response to a Craigslist ad and collected a $600 deposit from him as well, sheriff’s officials said.

The following day, on July 13, a second female victim gave the same woman a deposit in the same amount, deputies said. The victims each met with the woman who identified herself as McCleary a second time in different locations to pay her additional money in the form of cashier’s checks.

Cowart said when she met the alleged scammer at the Tower Road Library on July 24, the woman gave her a key and told her that she had to wait another day before she could go to the apartment. Cowart asked the woman for a lease, and was told one would be drawn up soon.

As she drove away, Cowart said she became suspicious and drove to the apartment anyway, but the key did not work. The other female victim opened the door and told Cowart that the woman identified as McCleary had given her a working key to the apartment but had never cleaned or painted the apartment as promised. Cowart drove back to the library, where she’d just met with the woman, but she was gone.

Shortly after Cowart returned to the apartment, sheriff’s officials said, a third victim arrived and all three victims notified the Sheriff’s Office.

It turns out the property was legally listed for rent by Matchmaker Realty. An agent for Matchmaker also went to the apartment on Wednesday to show it to a prospective tenant, but was shocked to find the lockbox had been broken and someone was inside.

The woman who identified herself as McCleary had used the key inside of the lockbox to get into the apartment to show all three victims, deputies said.

Rosa Travis, the owner of Matchmaker, said she sympathizes with the scam victims, but the owner of the property knew nothing about it.

“The woman who did this is hurting a lot of people,” said Travis. “The people there now have no right to be there and so they have to move out. I realize they’ve been scammed and I feel badly, but there’s nothing I can do.”

Cowart described the suspect as a black female approximately 5-foot-5 with a thin build. The woman was wearing multi-colored scrubs and had a yellowing tooth in the front. She was wearing a hair cover when they met the first time, Cowart said.

The male victim told investigators the woman behind the scam had several other properties listed on Craigslist.

ASO spokesman Art Forgey said investigators hope to retrieve video footage from the public locations where the suspect met victims, including the parking lot of North Florida Regional Medical Center, a Chick-fil-A and the Tower Road Library.

“You really don’t know what you’re dealing with on Craigslist and it’s ripe for scams,” said Forgey. “If people decide to deal with Craigslist, they really have to try and make sure the person they are dealing with is legitimate and try to meet them in public places where there might be cameras in case something goes wrong.”

Cowart and her two children have been staying with a relative while she hopes to get some or all or some of her money back in order to find a more permanent place to live.

“I really wanted my own place, and I thought I had a place,” said Cowart. “But it turned out it wasn’t really that lady’s apartment.”

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