A Chicago woman in the process of renovating her home to sell it found a squatter living inside, and there is little, if anything, she can do to get her out.
Danielle Cruz was renovating her home in the Chatham neighborhood of Chicago. She had listed the home for sale. But last month, a contractor who came to the home to perform some final repairs found the locks changed and a young woman with all her belongings living in the home. Cruz and her husband called police, but because the young woman showed them a lease agreement, they could not evict her.
“We honestly thought [the contractor] was joking because we knew the house was vacant,” Cruz told ABC7 Chicago Tuesday. “My husband just repaired the house completely with his own money. So, we show up with the cops, and there’s a young woman in there with all of her belongings.”
According to Cruz, the woman told police that she saw an online listing advertising the home for rent. She then signed a month-to-month lease, including an $8,000 upfront payment, with someone claiming to be the landlord, and began living in the home. Cruz told ABC 7 that she had never met the woman, nor did she lease the property to her.
“Officers made contact with the individual inside the residence who related she met with an unknown male who claimed to be the landlord of the residence,” Chicago police said in a statement, via ABC 7. “She also related she had signed a lease and paid a deposit prior to receiving keys to the residence from the individual claiming to be the landlord. Responding officers advised the owners of the home of eviction procedures.”
“The Sheriff’s Office is responsible for removing people from their home when they fail to pay their rent or mortgage,” the Cook County Sheriff’s Office added in a statement of their own. “There is a clear civil process that individuals follow when that occurs. When someone breaks into a home that is up to the local police department to establish the law they violated and pursue that as a criminal matter.”
Cruz may have been victimized by a growing trend of scams run on vacant homes. A Google search of the phrase “squatter scam” brings up a number of results indicating that these scams are being run nationwide. According to a 2017 report from the Indianapolis Star, the scams became popular in recent years, with a combination of a poor economy and local issues with vacant homes. The scam works like this: a con artist will identify a vacant home, be it abandoned, foreclosed, or even just up for sale. The scammer will then change the locks on the house, and present an otherwise unsuspecting tenant with a counterfeit lease agreement printed off the internet, and a set of keys.
Chicago real estate attorney Mo Dadkhah said he has seen this phenomenon before. “Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more common,” he told ABC7. Dadkhah suggested that the individual could either be a victim of such a scam, or she could have moved in herself, created a fake lease, and presented that to police.
“So, generally speaking, squatters have to figure out a way to show some sort of residency,” the lawyer said. “So I’ve heard a variety of stories — forged leases with the landlord’s name, I’ve seen forged leases with realtors’ names.” In any case, police officers have no way to determine whether the documents are real or not, so they have no recourse to arrest or evict the squatter. Dadkhah said the case has to proceed through the Cook County eviction courts, which are currently backlogged. “The process could take six, 12, 18 months,” he said.
“I definitely do feel violated,” Cruz said. “Like I said, we may not live here, but it’s still our property. I own this house, and it feels like if anyone can just break into your house and kind of take over – that’s a scary feeling.”