Fla. Couple Sentenced for Rental Scams, More

HIALEAH, Fla. – Two months after Hialeah couple Vivian Rodriguez and Yovany Serna were convicted of fleecing a family out of nearly $1.8 million in an investment scam, a Miami judge has sentenced them to 15 and 14 years in prison, respectively.

And that may be just the beginning of their legal problems.

Hialeah police detectives have now identified at least 19 victims in a separate scam. The pair preyed on desperate home hunters, stealing rental deposits for the same Hialeah efficiency, cops say. They are facing dozens of new felony charges that could significantly boost the time they spend in prison.

The latest cases come as the costs of South Florida’s housing market have skyrocketed to untenable levels, pricing out the middle class from purchases, spurring landlords to jack up rents by more than 50% and sparking local governments to consider rules to help struggling tenants. Miami is now the country’s least affordable housing market.

On Tuesday, tenants associated with the Miami Workers Center plan to protest outside Miami-Dade County Hall, to urge commissioners to increase protections for tenants reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and ballooning housing costs.

Against that backdrop, more and more people are also falling victims to scammers who use social media to target home hunters.

On Monday, Homestead police detectives announced they’d arrested Priscilla Marie Contreras, 32, on allegations she posed as a real-estate agent and used Facebook Marketplace to “rent” a home and accept deposits from unsuspecting would-be tenants – but the home wasn’t actually for rent. Two others who posed as homeowners, Yordani Carriles Diaz, 43, and Deinoser Bravo, 47, are on the lam, police say.

Investigators have documented at least 16 victims in Homestead and other parts of Miami-Dade County, according to Homestead police.

“Detectives believe that there is a strong possibility that there are more victims who have been preyed upon by these subjects,” said Homestead Police Capt. Fernando Morales.

Social media rental scams

In a statement, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle cautioned renters that rock-bottom prices advertised on the internet can sometimes be too good to be true.

“In our tight rental market, people desperate to find affordable housing can be easy prey for rental scammers,” she said. “These con artists will advertise a good deal to draw their victims in, even supplying receipts for any money provided. Sadly, when the scam is detected and the scammer has your cash, that receipt may prove worthless.”

In a separate but similar case, Rodriguez and Serna are in jail awaiting trial on accusations that they fleeced people who believed they were paying deposits for an efficiency at 20 W. 60th St., attached to the house where Rodriguez and Serna were living.

In all, Hialeah police detectives have identified at least 19 victims. So far, Rodriguez has been charged in 18 separate cases, Serna in 16. Both face charges such as grand theft and organized scheme to defraud.

The victims all shared similar stories: desperate for housing, they used Facebook Marketplace to find the efficiency and meet with Rodriguez and Serna, who told them an elderly man was still living in the efficiency, but they could move in one week later. They paid deposits of $1,000 and were even given a paper receipt.

But Rodriguez and Serna never allowed the victims to move in and stopped returning calls. Eventually, in mid-December, a number of them showed up to the efficiency demanding to move in or get their money back – and they all realized they’d been duped, according to police reports.

In December, the couple was first charged with eight cases, and the rest have been added in recent weeks. Rodriguez’s attorney declined to comment. Serna’s lawyer did not return a request for comment.

House flipping scam

The two are back in jail after a jury convicted them in a wholly different scam.

The couple was convicted of stealing nearly $1.8 million from a family that thought it was investing in a house-flipping company. Rodriguez, a real estate agent, helped broker the deals and Serna, a handyman, was to renovate the houses for re-sale.

But 31 of the 32 properties they purported to have purchased weren’t even for sale, investigators say. At trial, prosecutors said the money they spent on personal expenses, including over $220,000 at local casinos, cruises and trips to Disney World and Europe.

Rodriguez herself took the stand during the December trial, suggesting the victims knew the documents she’d given them were bogus – while at one point even complimenting state prosecutors for the amount of evidence they’d amassed.

On Friday, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Miguel de la O sentenced Rodriguez to 15 years in prison and 15 years probation, Serna to 14 in prison and 16 of probation. During the hearing, the judge did not mince words.

“You are thieves. Some people rob with a gun, you robbed with your words. You relied on your shared Cuban background and your presentation as a family, and used [the victims’] trust against them,” de la O told them. “There’s little difference between what you did and if you had walked into a bank and handed a note to the teller asking for 1.5 million dollars, except that you have affected the rest of their lives and their children’s lives.”

© 2022 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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