A woman who preyed on apartment hunters by pretending to rent to them and then keeping their money was sentenced to two years in state prison today and ordered to pay more than $100,000 in restitution.
Rachael Marie Smith, 30, was sentenced after pleading guilty Aug. 29 to three counts of grand theft in a plea agreement. She was originally charged with 18 counts of grand theft, one for each victim she defrauded, according to prosecutors.
Smith, a tenant in an apartment on the 5300 block of California Street in San Francisco’s Richmond District, ran ads on Craigslist advertising the apartment for rent, although she was not legally entitled to do so. She listed the apartment as dog friendly, and most of her eventual victims were dog owners eager for an affordable apartment in San Francisco’s tight rental market, victims said.
Smith collected security deposits and first month’s rent from 18 people, each of whom gave her about $5,500. She then told the would-be renters the move-in date was changed, held them off with claims that her mother had cancer, and meanwhile continued to advertise the apartment and collect money from more people.
Prosecutors say she collected around $110,000 altogether. She was ordered to pay restitution of $109,150.
The sentencing brought some small sense of closure to her victims, three of whom were in court this afternoon, but the chaos and stress caused by the scam remain with many of them.
Nicole Duenes, 38, said she and her husband were among the lucky ones, in that they learned the move was canceled two days before they were scheduled to move in, and were able to extend the lease on their previous apartment.
Other victims learned of the scam only when they turned up at the apartment with their belongings in a moving truck. Some had even moved across the country to move into the apartment.
“We were all packed, we had the movers scheduled and everything,” Duenes said.
“Other people had nowhere to go, they were staying with friends and coworkers, putting their dogs in kennels.”
Duenes said the experience had been extremely stressful, and noted that she was still concerned about potential identity theft.
“I’ve taken so many days off to deal with her,” Duenes said of Smith. “This person has my social security number and drivers license, so I’m going to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder.”
Smith missed three court dates in the case in June and July of this year, and a $200,000 bench warrant was issued for her arrest. She eventually turned herself in on Aug. 16.
Smith made no statement in court today. Defense attorney Greg Goldman said his client was remorseful but unable to offer any sort of apology during court proceedings because it would interfere with her defense.
“She feels very badly, and her family is sickened,” Goldman said.
Victims at today’s hearing, however, expressed skepticism and said they thought it was unlikely Smith would ever pay the ordered restitution.
“There’s nothing to indicate any sort of remorse,” said one man who asked not to be identified. “She’s chosen to be a financial predator and she’s done it with a great deal of thought.”
District Attorney George Gascon said the fraud should serve as a cautionary tale for renters. He urged renters to check that brokers are legitimate, and to talk to neighbors or run an internet search to check on a property’s ownership before handing over their money. If attempting to sublet an apartment, ask to see a copy of the lease to make sure the person has the right to sublet.
“I know it’s a really tight market, I know it’s not uncommon to have multiple people lined up for a place, but please take the time to determine if the person leasing the apartment has the right to do so,” Gascon said. “An ounce of prevention here is so important.”
With credit for time served and good behavior, Smith could end up serving only about a year, Assistant District Attorney Evan Ackiron said. Her sentence was a state prison sentence, but under recent changes to state law she will probably end up serving it in county jail.
Sara Gaiser, Bay City News