LONGWOOD, Fla. - As Eric Vigil was searching the classifieds website Craigslist for a home to rent, he discovered an advertisement for a 3 bedroom house in Longwood, which supposedly cost just $725 a month.
But when Vigil, a bail bondsman, began researching the landlord, Melissa Diller, he discovered she did not own the house nor any other property in Seminole County.
Suspecting the rental listing might be a scam, Vigil said he confronted Diller by sending her text messages.
"She stopped replying and did not try to defend herself," he said.
Since Vigil did not give Diller any money, he said he did not contact police. However, Vigil wanted to alert other potential renters about his experience, so he created his own Craigslist ad which reads "Warning Scammer" and contains Diller's jail mug shots from her previous battery and driving-related arrests.
Vigil's online message would later be read by a woman who police say had just paid Diller $300 to rent the same Longwood home. Lucy Buitrago told Longwood police that after giving Diller the deposit, she checked Craigslist again to ensure Diller had removed the home rental listing. That's when Buitrago discovered Vigil's scam warning, according to investigators.
Longwood police later determined the home on Longdale Avenue that Diller was allegedly trying to rent out actually belongs to her stepfather, Mark Gordon.
Gordon, who said Diller was planning to give him $300 for rent, told police his stepdaughter did not have permission to sub-lease his home.
Officers arrested Diller, along with an alleged accomplice, Jason Tate. As she was being put into a patrol car, Diller told police, "I won't confess to something I didn't do."
After being released from jail on bond, authorities said Diller once again tried to rent out a home that did not belong to her. And once again, the prospective tenants contacted authorities about Diller after stumbling upon Vigil's Craigslist ad.
After responding to a Craigslist ad for a rental home on Howard Avenue near Longwood, Stephanie Selbe and Anthony Bass told detectives they were given a tour of the home by Diller and her associate,
Kenyon Times. The next day, the prospective tenants met Diller and Times at a Denny's restaurant in Orange County to pay a $100 deposit, according to deputies.
When Selbe and Bass learned about Vigil's warning about the potentially phony landlord, they contacted the Seminole County Sheriff's Office. On December 28, an undercover detective joined Selbe and Bass as they returned to the home to pick up the key. "(Times) introduced himself to me as Elijah and opened the garage door use a garage door opener," wrote Seminole County Sheriff's investigator Molly Smith. "(He) proceeded to show us the interior of the residence portraying himself to be an owner/agent of the property."
In fact, records show the home is owned by a real estate investment company, which was in the process of renting it out. Company officials told investigators Diller and Times were not associated with their business.
After the prospective renters gave the supposed landlords a $1000 deposit, deputies arrested Diller and Times.
Diller is suspected in at least two other cases of fraudulent home rentals, according to Longwood police.
A Seminole County Sheriff's spokeswoman recommends that prospective renters research property records to ensure the landlord owns the home. If the home is listed by a real estate company, the sheriff's office recommends meeting the agent at their office rather than at the home.