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Column: During Something in the Water, there was someone unexpected in my rental cottage

[Alexander Lysenko/Via Shutterstock]

BY DENISE FINKBEINER HOLDEN

OCEANFRONT — I never planned to rent my cottage the weekend of the Something in the Water festival. 

For the past couple of years, neighbors partying and street noise had made the cottage less inviting the last weekend of April. Even back in the mid-1980’s when I worked at the Ramada hotel, I knew that a bunch of young, formally-educated people using their parents’ credit cards could turn feral pretty quickly. 

So I blocked the cottage this year from HomeAway, the vacation rental site we use to book it. I planned to use it myself before the summer season for maintenance

And, once Pharrell Williams’ festival was announced, I really wanted to be there and see all the excitement – maybe meet Snoop Dog.

The festival activities on Friday, April 26, were rained out. I waited until that Saturday to pack bicycles into my truck and gather some yard tools and paint in case I felt inspired to do chores. I drove the long way around to the crowded resort area via Birdneck Road. I went around to the front of the cottage after locking the bikes against a tree in the backyard. There was a charcoal grill on the porch. I wondered who left it there.

Then I noticed the open front door, and a tall man came out, hand extended in greeting. 

“Hi, Amanda,” he said.

Amanda? 

“Who are you?” I asked. “Why are you in my house?”

“You rented it to us,” he replied.

“I didn’t rent out the house. I am going to use it myself. It was blocked on the website. There’s no way you are supposed to be here.”

We awkwardly stared at each other. He got out his phone while speaking to someone within the house. A huge man, as large as the doorway, spilled out from behind him. 

The first man showed me the description of my house he found on Craigslist, through which he believed he had rented my cottage. The listing was complete with photos of every room, the gardens, everything. 

I was stuttering now. My tiny house was advertised for rent as “can sleep 10” on a website I had never visited. Who did this? What else do they have? How did he get a key?

I slowly sat down on the glider, watching them. Earl was his name, a high school special ed teacher from Philadelphia. They were celebrating his younger brother’s 21st birthday. Mark, the younger man, smiled wide. He was a football player at a small North Carolina college. 

They found the Craigslist ad about a month earlier and were excited to have a place for the festival. 

“Amanda” had charged them fees, taxes, cleaning, car passes, a deposit – in all, almost $1,000 through one of those transfer services so handy for scammers.

“You do realize you aren’t getting that deposit back, and your payment won’t reach the maid,” I said.

“Yes.” 

We sat quietly thinking of all the different scenes that could have played out at our meeting. There could have been a dozen drunk people in there wrecking the place. I could have been one of those fired up Second Amendment types with a zippy trigger finger. If I had gone the day before, I would have been awoken by two looming figures on my porch, and I might have assumed they were trying to break in. 

“For that matter,” I said, “you have no idea if I’m even the owner. I might be some crazy homeless person wearing an apron, announcing this is my house.”

“I thought of that.”

I told him to try and contact “Amanda” to satisfy him that she didn’t exist. Meanwhile, I went out to the bikes and started making phone calls. This didn’t seem like something the police would have an interest in, given the workload they had right now. 

I called HomeAway and tried to get answers. Nothing. 

My husband, Tom, showed up while I was trying to piece together our major security fail. Tom, in his classic style, chatted up the guys and got comfortable on the porch. 

I still don’t know how the guys knew where the house was – the address is not on the website – or how they found the key. My naive technique, which I assure you has forever changed, had been to hide a key and send the guest information just days before arrival. 

The key could be changed randomly and wasn’t out while the cottage was occupied. I quickly saw all kinds of faults with this system. 

I wasn’t happy about the predicament, but perhaps I should count my blessings. It could have been so much worse. 

Detectives told me later that this is a very common scam, with victims showing up at vacation homes every week, totally out of luck. I wrote a Facebook post about the event, and it prompted shared stories of deposits lost, houses for sale being “rented,” vacations ruined. I was told the FBI website logged an astonishing number of internet fraud complaints last year, many from properties offered through Craigslist, many originating from outside of the country.

After checking the condition of the house, taking a photo of their car license, we let them stay the remainder of the festival as our guests, as long as they paid the maid. As Tom and I walked out of the house, I noticed hamburgers and hotdogs ready to go on the grill. I saw a chance to cement some sort of bond with these key holders.

“I want you to cook me dinner,” I said.

 Earl laughed from the doorway. “You got it.”

We never did get dinner. The guys had tickets to a concert starting in just a few minutes and we didn’t want them to miss even more of the special weekend. 

So Tom and I went bike-riding for a while to check out the festival, to witness to this massive event as grey hairs among the young and do some people watching. Tom didn’t want to wait for them to come back just to commune with strangers. All we could do was hope it worked out.

That Sunday, I rode my bike to the pop-up church service on 20th Street. I wandered around on the sand waiting to hear Mary Mary and the other highly respected gospel singers. It was perfect weather and I was feeling optimistic. 

I biked to the cottage in time to see our guests in their car getting ready to leave. Earl stopped the engine and hopped out. He gave me a huge hug. His brother got out and gave me an even bigger hug. It was like being grabbed by a bear. 

They told me about what they had seen and what a great weekend they had. We took photos on the deck.

I still have contact with them. I don’t know how the scammers shared the crucial information, if the website was hacked or a previous guest sold off the information. I’m not sure I’ll ever have answers.

I’m trying to be positive and take the good from what we experienced. 

The young men left the house in good shape. They paid the maid well. We changed our lock and information system. 

I got a great weekend and a great story – there was someone in the cottage during Something in the Water. 

Thanks, Pharrell.


© 2019 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

The Independent News

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