November 3, 2018

JF1523: Protect Yourself And Renters From Rental Property Scams #SituationSaturday with Tammy Sorrento

Tammy was an insurance investigator for many years. She took that knowledge into a new industry, investigating rental property scams. She was actually in a situation with a scammer, luckily with her background she knew right away it was a scam. Not everyone can pick up on that, and that’s what her company, Fireball Approves, helps with. If you enjoyed today’s episode remember to subscribe in iTunes and leave us a review!


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Tammy Sorrento Real Estate Background:

  • Private Investigator specializing in the prevention of rental scams
  • Developed a solution for rental property after working for 20 years doing insurance investigations
  • Keeps renters from getting burned when they are renting property for long-term to vacation
  • Based in Jacksonville, FL
  • Say hi to her at

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Joe Fairless: Best Ever listeners, how are you doing? Welcome to the best real estate investing advice ever show. I’m Joe Fairless, and this is the world’s longest-running daily real estate investing podcast. We only talk about the best advice ever, we don’t get into any of that fluffy stuff. With us today, Tammy Sorrento. How are you doing, Tammy?

Tammy Sorrento: I’m doing great. How are you, Joe?

Joe Fairless: I’m doing great as well, and I’m looking forward to our conversation. Today, Best Ever listeners – first off, I hope you’re having a Best Ever weekend. Because today is Saturday, we’ve got a special segment. It’s Situation Saturday, where if you find yourself owning a property, well then you need to listen up, because Tammy is  a private investigator who specializes in the prevention of rental scams. She has developed a solution for rental properties after working for 20 years doing insurance investigations.

She keeps renter from getting burned when they’re getting property for long-term to vacation. She’s based in Jacksonville, Florida, and she works with clients all across the country. So we’re gonna talk about how to protect yourself from rental property scams, and to set the foundation, Tammy, can you talk a little bit about your background, just so we get to know you a little bit more?

Tammy Sorrento: Absolutely. I have been in insurance for the last two decades plus. So I started off as an agent, and then I became a claim [unintelligible [00:04:14].11] an investigator, and I have handled every type of insurance claim that you can imagine, including litigation, all over the United States. This is my passion, and that’s Fireball Approves… And the whole reason that I started this is I was in this situation, as many renters are. I was actually looking for a vacation rental, and it was a last-minute thing, and I was gonna have my siblings come in from all over the U.S., and we wanted to go to Key West. Everything was booked. And once again, that’s because this was a last-minute reservation… And that’s when they get you. That’s when the scammers know that you’re vulnerable.

So knowing what I know, I felt very confident that I would be able to sniff out a scam, and I did, but what I realized is if someone doesn’t have the background that I have, I can certainly understand how people get scammed when you’re dealing with advertisers on Craigslist, on Facebook, all over the internet… How do you know that you’re actually dealing with the property owner of that rental? So then I decided to create a solution, so that people that don’t have my background then have a solution to keep them safe. Then the natural progression was to become a private investigator.

My services are nationwide, they’re extremely affordable, because my main goal is to help as many as I can. I’m not gonna eliminate an income group or age group. My charge to the renters is only $19. And what I do is you can send me the URL of the advertisement, and I’m gonna make sure that that advertiser is the correct owner or the correct agent. This includes – and you’ll not hear this from any other vendor; in fact, I don’t think that anyone is actually doing what I’m doing… This even includes the e-mail and the phone number, because that’s how you’re dealing with the advertisers.

It started off as a vacation product. I actually list property owners on my website; they’ve gone through my vetting process, because they also want to give potential customers peace of mind that they are legit. So it’s been very exciting, very eye-opening, and I have a compulsive need to help people, and this is just the best of both worlds.

Joe Fairless: Why wouldn’t the potential renter just go to VRBO or Airbnb and have that done for them?

Tammy Sorrento: Well, if you do a Google search of “Airbnb scams”, “VRBO scams”, they are out there. Once again, you may wanna have a second set of eyes just to make sure. In fact, we have a testimonial where someone did reserve an Airbnb in Colorado, and we just made sure that that was legitimate. So it was worth it to that customer.

Joe Fairless: Was it?

Tammy Sorrento: Yes, she paid the $19 so that they knew that there weren’t going to be any issues. Unfortunately, the scammers are extremely pervasive. I can see, I can understand, and when people do get scammed on a rental, they are embarrassed… So like I said, I priced my service low enough that it actually doesn’t make sense not to have us check it out for you.

Joe Fairless: So what’s the typical scam?

Tammy Sorrento: The typical scam – and this is for any type of rental; this can be a property rental, this can be vacation, but that you’re not dealing with a property… That someone has gone to Airbnb or VRBO, has nothing to do with that property and they list it as the owner. So you send in the money, you go to this rental, and you find out that you sent money that you’re never gonna get back. This is what I prevent.

Joe Fairless: What information is typically provided by the scammer, that gives the victim the comfort level to then send the scammer money?

Tammy Sorrento: Well, here’s what happened with me. With the one that I was in contact in Key West, I looked up public records, I knew who the property owner was, I knew that there was a home at that address via Google maps, but get this – everyone has access to public records, but not all states have public records. But also the scammers have access to public records. So would you believe that the scammer that I was actually in contact with had their e-mail address in the name of the property owner at

So here’s how I found out that it was a scam. I kept on saying to the person, “You know what, I cannot connect that you are who you say you are, and I can’t bring my four children down and not have a place.” So I ended our discussion. Then two days later he contacts me again – it could have been a she for all I know – and said “You know what, I was dealing with you longer… I’ll send you some references.” I said okay.

He sent me some invoices that were just like mine, just no phone numbers. So I googled the phone number for one of the customers from Chicago. Now, this is where it gets really interesting and eye-opening. She and her husband had flown down from Chicago to Key West New Year’s Eve weekend… And her first response when I asked about this rental, she said “Why on earth did he give you my information? That was an absolute scam.” So I asked her, “You were protected by using your credit card and using PayPal, right?” and she said it took six months for her to get her money back, because the credit card issuer considered that person-to-person, and not person-to-business.

That was when I said, “Okay, something needs to be done, because there seems to be a crime that’s hard to prove.” Once you send money — we all know the red flags; you’re not gonna wire money, because that’s just like sending cash. There’s no way to get that back. But what about the situations — maybe someone doesn’t wanna pay the fee that Airbnb and VRBO charges. Maybe they are [unintelligible [00:11:46].07] which is why they’re going to alternative sources. What if they’re moving from another area? And this is another place that we help someone…

This was a radio station owner, when we first started. She called  me and she said, “Okay, my daughter is moving back to St. Augustine, and she was looking through Craigslist for rentals, and she said the one that she picked just doesn’t sound right. Can you check into it?” So we did, and within two hours we had contacted the homeowner of that property, and there was a difference of what the scammer listed it as, of like $600/month.

So we saved the daughter from paying a deposit and coming down and not having a place to stay. That’s where I get my fulfillment.

Joe Fairless: Oh, yeah. It’s a wonderful service that you provide. You said you check up on the Craigslist posting, and within two hours you contacted the homeowner… In those two hours, what are you doing?

Tammy Sorrento: We use tools that’s not available to the public. These are tools that insurance companies, financial institutions — we are literally going in and investigating who that property owner is, and then we contact them… And many times we hear “That’s my property.” In California there is no public records, so you can’t check an address, but we have our tools that the common public does not.

So we’ll contact the actual property owner, and often times they’ll say “I’m not renting my house. I’m living in it.” [laughs] So we just saved the homeowner from having someone come to their home, knock on the door, and say “I just paid a first, last and deposit”, and now they can’t get that money back. So I’m basically helping the owners as well, because who wants to get that knock on the door? Wouldn’t you feel terrible, even though it’s not even your fault?

Joe Fairless: Yeah, it’d be an interesting conversation, that’s for sure. From a business standpoint, $19 for a verification – that’s a whole lot of verifications for you to make a big impact on a bank account, so what’s your vision for this to grow the company? Is it acquire more $19/pop people and just grow organically, or is there a different revenue stream and business plan?

Tammy Sorrento: Well, I’ll tell you what we’re doing now. The $19, that is a B2C model. I just wanna help people. So that’s my B2C model. Now we are actually implementing a B2B model, and we’re going to companies for their recruiting… Because when they recruit their employees, would they really want the employees to be on their own with finding an accommodation when they’re starting a new company? Do they really wanna put their recruits through the process of possibly getting scammed? So that’s where we’re growing. We are in talks with — and when I say “we”, I actually partnered with a like-minded entrepreneur in Seattle, Washington, and we pooled our resources together and we are going to tech companies. They’re not hiring local. If they’re gonna bring in someone from (let’s say) Kansas, we can be a part of their recruiting, where we will make sure that their new employee isn’t gonna start their job stressed out because they possibly got scammed. We’re gonna keep that from happening.

Joe Fairless: Anything else as it relates to this topic of being vigilant and knowing what to do and what to look for from a renter’s standpoint, for long-term rentals or vacation rentals, that we haven’t talked about, that you think we should?

Tammy Sorrento: Oh, absolutely… The stories. It’s almost like the scammers have a script that they use… And it’s going to be “I’ll send you the keys. I’m out of the country. I’m in the military. I’m a missionary.” I’ve heard this excuse. “I was in a car accident. My husband was transported to Texas”, and this beautiful $400,000 home, they’re listing for  a very nominal amount. But once again, if you’re looking from out of town, how are you gonna know what the going rental rate is for that area? And when I heard that excuse — we had driven by, because I was actually looking for a family member… Before I even drove by to look at the house, they said “Now, if you drive by, you’re gonna see a property management sign, but we fired them because they were too greedy, so we are just doing this on our own. We’re in Texas… So if you like what you see on the outside, we’re gonna need a deposit to send you the keys.” I mean, really? [laughs] But that is what they’re saying, and like I said, if you don’t have the experience that we have, that is believable and you think “Wow… You know what, I got the good deal”, but nine times out of ten it’s not.

Joe Fairless: And prior to sending the deposit, they usually offer to give some sort of contract?

Tammy Sorrento: Yes, absolutely. Of course, the ones that we prevent people – they never get to that point, thank God.

Joe Fairless: Sure. Speaking candidly, in my world, if I’m doing a vacation or a long-term rental — well, I don’t know about long-term rental, but vacation home, I just go Airbnb… And there’s power in the crowd through those reviews. If you go with someone who’s got 50 reviews plus, it’s highly likely you’re gonna have a similar experience as the 50+ people, because that’s what the platform’s built on. So are there a  lot of people looking at vacation rentals on Craigslist that is an audience for this?

Tammy Sorrento: [unintelligible [00:18:34].05] and I know where you’re coming from, Joe, and you’re absolutely right. You’re paying a premium for Airbnb and VRBO, and even the hot property owner, they’re paying a premium. It’s expensive to list on their site, and then you just think, “Well, surely people wouldn’t pay that much money if they’re a scammer”, but then I challenge that thinking. If they’re gonna make money, why would they not pay to sign on?

Airbnb has gotten better about that, because if you looked two or three years ago, there were a lot of scams.

Joe Fairless: Have you busted anyone who you qualified, who was initially on Airbnb and then you got paid by a client to look him up, and then they weren’t legit?

Tammy Sorrento: No, actually all the ones that we’ve looked at Airbnb, knock on wood, they were legit.

Joe Fairless: Mostly Craigslist?

Tammy Sorrento: Mostly Craigslist.

Joe Fairless: Got it.

Tammy Sorrento: And Facebook. A lot of people look on Facebook for that, as well. So that is our mission. Now, what we’re doing also is we are expanding that it’s not only just an investigation as to if you are dealing with the property owner, but now we’re also expanding to include services where we will get an objective party to actually walk through. So if it’s a long-term rental that you’re looking for, we are going to make sure and actually visit that rental, and make sure that the amenities are as described. That’s a huge help.

Joe Fairless: When I lived in New York City, Craigslist was the way to go for rentals, so I get that, and I’m sure it’s rampant in New York City and rentals on Craigslist, so you could probably retire a billionaire if you just focus on New York City scams in the rental industry. Well, how can the Best Ever listeners learn more about what you’ve got going on and get in touch with you?

Tammy Sorrento: Well, my company name is Fireball Approves, and most people don’t like that, because it doesn’t say what I do… But I did that because as scammers evolve, I want to evolve. My mission is to put the scammers out of business. I also report them to the FBI as well, hoping that that will help shut them down. But everyone is welcome to check out my website at I made my website where that really tells what I do. We’re also on Facebook, Fireball Approves, ForNoScams, we have Instagram, Twitter, we’re on LinkedIn… So I invite everyone that if they have a child going to college, if they’re relocating, if they are looking to rent a vacation home – it’s better to know before you go, because you don’t wanna get burned.

Vacation time is a time for relaxation. You certainly don’t want to end up like the person I spoke to, where they had to find accommodation in Key West over New Year’s Eve weekend. Can you just imagine the hassle involved in that? And then not to get their money back for six months. This is what I avoid.

Joe Fairless: It’s certainly helpful for those you work with. At a minimum, a peace of mind; at most – we talked about that… Money, and time, and stress, and all that. When you report these cases to the FBI, are they like “Oh, Tammy, come on… Leave me alone. Another one of these things…?!”

Tammy Sorrento: [laughs]

Joe Fairless: What’s the response from them?

Tammy Sorrento: Well, I did go to the FBI building here locally, and — I’m a go-getter… And I explained to them what I was doing, and I said “Hey, I feel like I have a duty to let you know… Because this is a growing concern.” So they did give me the website to relay my findings. What I find most of all is the person that’s advertising that property isn’t even in the same state; so now you deal with that. So I hope that they’re using my information. Of course, they won’t follow up with me to let me know if they shut them down, but eventually, that has to be the case.

Joe Fairless: Great stuff. Thank you for being on the show, educating us on this topic. I think it’s certainly relevant for those of us who live in cities where we find our next apartment or rental or Craigslist… And then also for anyone who looks for vacation rentals on Craigslist – if you’re out there, then this certainly is a good service, too. Thank you again for spending time with us and doing what you do. I hope you have a best ever weekend, and we’ll talk to you soon.

Tammy Sorrento: Joe, thank you, and I hope to be back soon.

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