Lease-to-Own Lure: Alleged Real Estate Scam Preyed on Absentee Owners
She'd like to buy this home, she reportedly said, but she first needed to lease it for a couple of months while she waited for some financial matters from a business deal to settle. She came across as poised, friendly, and likable, but Winegardner held a secret, real estate agents and authorities say: She is a scam artist.
According to real estate agents and landlords who count themselves as her victims: Winegardner posed over and over again as a prospective homebuyer interested in a lease-to-own option; she never bothered to change her name, only her voice, as she scammed her way into nearly two dozen known Ohio homes -- until their owners caught on and evicted her.
With 15 total evictions under her belt in the last four years and at least 21 overall, reports the Columbus Dispatch, the alleged check-forger finally landed a new home in jail, awaiting trial, thanks to some shrewd real estate agents, a concerned neighbor and a police detective investigating bank fraud.
Some of her last alleged victims, Forrest Shirkey and wife Heather Schroederer, said that they originally thought she was heaven-sent. They authorized their real estate agent to hand over the keys to their three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath New Albany, Ohio home in exchange for Winegardner's $4,158 cashier's check. The initial payment was meant to cover first and last month's rent and as a deposit to take occupancy in April and ultimately purchase the home for the full price, minus seller-paid closing costs.
The home with a finished basement and screened porch, had been sitting empty since November, when the couple had moved to Pennsylvania. Covering their own rent and the mortgage back in Ohio was straining the pockets of Shirkey and Schroederer. A full-price offer of $224,000 in fewer than six months was, well, apparently, too good to be true. But at the time "it was what we needed when we needed it," Shirkey tells AOL's RentedSpaces.
The couple did their due diligence, just as many homeowners before them with whom Winegardner conducted business. They reviewed her 2007 and 2008 tax returns, her resume, and the business plan for a new venture that she insisted on sending. And they would only accept a cashier's check. But that too was counterfeit, they said.
Shirkey says, "As homeowners you are used to exchanging checks for keys, I didn't even think twice about it."
After all, they had also had their real estate agent to phone her references.
"I know now that she was just disguising her voice," says Real Living HER real estate agent Jann Hanners about the references, who all had accents -- one was Asian, one was from Georgia -- and they all gave glowing comments.
This RentedSpaces writer reviewed several of the documents Winegardner turned in for one of the properties she rented and uncovered some interesting results that could raise red flags for the suspicious. A Google search on one of the phone numbers she listed for her supposed previous landlord showed a connection with resumes4everyone.com. That's a website that Winegardener purchased in October 2009 for only one year, according to the Internic Whois database.
The paper copy of her "FreeCreditReport.com" shows her name, year of birth and date of document in a different typeface and shade than the rest of the document.
Her business plan for another venture shows she only expected to spend $2,500 in advertising and marketing, but planned to rake in about $200,000 in revenue for the first year.
Her Meet Up, LinkedIn and other social media accounts for the greater Columbus, Ohio area were all created in late 2009 and do not reveal much of a network circle for someone who purported to have a 2008 income of $249,000 by providing resume consulting services since 2005. Also, her tax returns were unsigned by her or by a tax preparer. Though she easily could have faked signatures, that potentially could have have added another layer of criminal charges.
Winegardner, who is currently in jail for violating parole, has a couple of different criminal suits pending against her in addition to civil actions past and present for the nonpayment of funds to her victims. While investigating a bank fraud case, Franklin County Detective Eric Stoddard says that he learned that "she got some money she wasn't entitled to from U.S. Bank." The City of Gahanna, Ohio is also suing her.
Shirkey just received a summons in the mail to testify against Winegardner by phone. "She really did a number on us," says Shirkey, who has dropped the list price of their home to $189,900. "Because of her I bounced a check to the mortgage company. Now we are heading toward foreclosure."
The home, with a fenced yard and two-car garage, is just around the corner from the home where Winegardner stayed immediately before. In fact, a neighbor followed her as she rode her bike up the street to the other home, according to Linda Ruzicka, the agent for Winegarder's previous residence. Ruzicka says that she also was originally fooled by Winegardner.
"She preyed on absentee-owners," Ruzicka says. But outside of not paying her rent, she made everything else believable. "She even always paid her utilities," she explains. "Even though she knew she'd only be in a home for a couple of months, she'd set up the cable, the home was well-furnished. She had a king-sized bed, a large-screen TV, her own washer and dryer, and a lawn mower in the garage. But that was all part of the scam. She didn't just travel with a suitcase, she moved in and filled the house."
Winegardner was a schmoozer and a down-to-earth sweettalker who pulled on your heartstrings, Ruzicka says. She had what seemed like a rational explanation for the bounced check (her delay in supplying some documents) and inconsistencies in her stories, including: having to nurse back to health a boyfriend who just had a heart attack and dealing with arrangements for her grandmother's funeral -- a story she told countless homeowners, years apart.
At one point she even apologized to Ruzicka for not getting back to her sooner: Her boyfriend's "youngest daughter was in a serious car accident and we ended up going over to Indiana to be with her," she allegedly wrote in a January e-mail. After she had taken occupancy and was supposedly in Indiana, the agent contacted Winegardner and told her that she saw fresh footprints in the snow leading to and from the home and that the mailbox flag was up.
Ruzicka says that Winegardner became stern, asking why was she being checked on and that it was her father, Gary Winegardner, of Reynoldburg, Ohio who had been at the home. When RentedSpaces attempted to contact Winegardner's father by phone, a woman answered and said that he had no comment.
Real Living's Hanners says that she met the elder Winegardner when he and his wife came to move his daughter's belongings from the home. She says that she asked him if he had any knowledge of his daughter's crimes, given that she moved so frequently, and that he replied, "We kind of suspected something."
Shirkey's advice to other landlords or sellers: "As much as a pain in the butt it is pay the fees to do a professional background check, as much as you don't want to spend the money on this service, just do it. We did one after the fact. Had we done one before, we would've seen that the Social Security number she gave us was fraudulent."
Other advice: Make sure the check clears before you hand over the keys.