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Renters sign lease, pay money, move into home not for rent

(WBIR-Knox County) A Knox County homeowner who moved, leaving his house for sale in Knox County, had to return to East Tennessee Thursday after he got a phone call from his neighbor saying renters had moved in.

The homeowner said he never put his house up for rent, and left it furnished, with a for sale sign out front.

"It's been a problem, an issue, for several years, but this is the furthest I've ever seen this go," said Lt. Mark Harvey, with the Knox County Sheriff's Office.

Harvey said officials have investigated all sorts of online scams, but this stood out since renters actually moved in.

"Usually they pay money, like a security deposit, and then never hear from the person again," said Harvey.

The renter, Keema Phillips, said the property was listed on Hotpads.com.

"We've been in contact. I heard from him today. He checked on me, asked us how we are doing, he asked us if we got a police report," said Phillips, who ultimately moved out of the house, along with three other people Thursday.

The homeowner says he paid Phillips $1,000 to leave just to avoid getting lawyers involved.

"I just don't know what's going on," said Phillips. "I mean I actually don't know because I feel like if it was a scam, he would not still be dealing with us, he would have left a long time ago."

10News called the person Phillips has been working with, but they did not return our calls. Instead, they sent text messages, but never answered our questions as to whether or not he or she owns the property, located in a neighborhood off Cedar Bluff Road.

"It took us two weeks to get the keys and everything and he had our money then. And if it really was a scam, he would have just left us alone," said Phillips. "He wouldn't be talking to me, he would have took my money and that would have been the end of it."

Phillips said he didn't want to leave the property, but took the $1,000 from the homeowner to avoid the drama.

"I've got a lawyer, and I want to get to the bottom of this. I'm stuck in the middle, and I paid $2,000 in security deposit and rent money," said Phillips.

Neighbors said they noticed unusual activity at the house recently, including a locksmiths.

"A couple of days ago there was a locksmith here but I didn't really think anything because I thought the house had been sold," said Greg Arnold, who lives two houses down. "I just assumed they were rekeying for new occupants."

Carl Brooks, who works at Cedar Bluff Lock and Key was in the neighborhood Thursday.

"25 years, and I've never seen this happen before. I've seen a lot of weird stuff, but I've never seen anyone move into somebody else's house and pay rent," said Brooks.

Brooks said the homeowner's realtor called him to rekey the house after the illegitimate renters moved out.

"I don't know how this happened," said Brooks. "I don't know how they got in. I don't know any shady locksmiths in Knoxville and if I did, I'd turn them in because they make us all look bad."

Harvey said KCSO is investigating, and trying to figure out who listed the property on the website.

"The person the renter talked to is probably not who they think it is," said Harvey. "We suspect that those are fake names, aliases. They could have just as well listed the property under the name Snow White."

The website allows users to report fraud, and lists tips to avoid being a victim of scams.

"Do due diligence and try to know who you're dealing with. Again, a face to face meeting is always the way to go, and never send money to someone you don't personally know," Harvey recommended. "Another thing to remember is that if it sounds like it's too good to be true, it probably is."

Phillips said his lease agreed to $1,000 monthly rent payments.

"There's no way this house would rent for that cheap out here," said one neighbor. "Large, newer, two-story brick home in a nice neighborhood in West Knoxville, I don't think so."

The homeowner said they are grateful neighbors called them, and they hope to move past this.

"It's very difficult to have renters removed. There are specific legal ramifications and laws that address that," said Harvey. "And in their (Phillips') minds, they are fully entitled to be on the property, on the premise, and maintain their residence. They paid to what they think is a legitimate entity."

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