Misadventures in Renting
May 24, 2011 11:04 AM   Subscribe

Security deposit ripped off by roommate

First, let me say that none of this would have happened had I not been an idiot.
From March until about a week ago I've been renting a room in an apartment in suburban Wisconsin on a month-to-month basis. When I moved out, the landlord swept through in an inspection, decided that some yardwork had to be done before I could get my deposit back, and vanished. Since then my roommate - the only person currently on the lease - has completely avoided all attempts at communication. Asking him to set up another inspection didn't work. He never picks up his phone or answers texts. Confronting him personally only yielded the number of a random stranger who knows nothing about the whole thing. (The yardwork is done, of course.)
This is obviously pretty sketchy. But I was the one who put his name on the deposit checks, which I'm sure are long gone. So I would chalk this up to a valuable lesson, except that when trying to get the number from other ex-roommates I discovered that he's done this to all of them (that I've reached so far, anyway).
The money honestly wasn't that much. But with everybody else getting ripped off, now it's about Justice (and Revenge, and Warning Away Future Residents)
How can I best accomplish these three goals?
I don't have a great idea of what kinds of legal remedies are available against him, is there any hope on that front?
If I can reach the landlords, would they be likely to take our side? If so, how could I reach them?
Should I try confronting him again, now that I have a little more information? If so, how do I counter when he tries to direct me to the landlords again? (My stature and personality are not exactly intimidating, and this is definitely not something I have any experience in dealing with.)
Are there any sites for this kind of thing where I could post him as a scammer and make sure that's the top hit for his name forever?

(This is similar to a few previous AskMes, but it's sort of a weird variation on the usual procedure of claiming the apartment is trashed after the victim has left. My guess is he actually does give the deposit to the landlords, but has talked them into giving it back in cash. Of course, they could be in it together, too.)
posted by marakesh to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This is why small-claims court exists. Here's a guide to them.
posted by inturnaround at 11:08 AM on May 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Try the landlord, and if no new info comes to light, it's off to small-claims court with you.
posted by brand-gnu at 11:10 AM on May 24, 2011

Are you a college student? Many have legal clinics that can help with this sort of thing. Here's a link to UW-Milwaukee's, since you mentioned Wisconsin.
posted by desjardins at 11:13 AM on May 24, 2011

I agree with the above mentions of small claims court. I've had to do something similar however, and if the amount wasn't very large then it may not be worth the time and effort (in my area I also needed to pay in order to file the claim). Another consideration is that even if you win, small claims court may not actually force your roommate to pay. I won my case and still haven't seen a cent as I can't really justify paying any more in order to send it to a collections agency.

As for Justice, Revenge, and Warning Away Future Residents - do you share any of the same social circle? It may be enough to plant some carefully-worded complaints with mutual friends. Don't sound overly aggressive, but make it clear he's putting you in a jam and being a dick about it. Societal pressure can be awfully persuasive.

Ultimately though, you may have just lived with a bad apple and it's one of those irritating 'lesson learned' scenarios. I hope your next roommate is much more respectful.
posted by owlparliament at 11:16 AM on May 24, 2011

Thanks to your question, I found out that small claim judgment is collected by credit rating agencies and DOES goes on the credit report of the person as a matter of procedure; even if you don't collect a cent from them. Perhaps you can enlighten your friend of this fact and induce him to pay off his debt?
posted by curiousZ at 12:09 PM on May 24, 2011

when trying to get the number from other ex-roommates I discovered that he's done this to all of them

This makes me recommend filing a police report as a first step, esp. since you're able to provide the police with the names of previous tenants who've all been scammed/defrauded/stolen-from. They may well brush you off, but you might also luck out and be end up talking to a cop whose sole job or passion is to track down serial grifters and give them what they've got coming to them. The fact that this person has defrauded people repeatedly will give the police more incentive to treat it as a criminal matter than merely as a civil dispute.
posted by matlock expressway at 12:18 PM on May 24, 2011

Wow. Thank you all, this is really good advice. I just got off the phone with one of the landlords (hooray for online property assessment searches - I thought that was something that only worked in the movies) and he has the deposits of the last four of us and was already planning to mail them out individually. I only have the word of one roommate so far that disappearing security deposits were a regular occurrence, and he hasn't gotten back to me yet about getting in touch with everybody else. And the number I got was only off by one (is a 4 in place of a 3 a slip of the finger, though?). So I'm not sure if there was ever really a scam or if Evil Roommate was just really flaky and the rest was in my head. It sounds like he was never a good enough tenant for something like this to have worked.
When I get in touch with everybody else I will direct them here.
Thank you all so much.
posted by marakesh at 12:56 PM on May 24, 2011

IANYL. Consider small claims. If I am reading this right, you had an agreement with him to be his co-tenant, and your share of the first+last+damage deposit was given to him so he could make one payment to the landlord. It sounds like something a judge might be willing to order you be given, but you're going to have to prove that you paid the money and are entitled to it back. If you paid cash, this might be difficult, since your own testimony will have less weight than documentary evidence. (Check, money order, etc.)

You should talk to the landlord. If they paid, I'm not sure this is their problem, unless they knew about the agreement, in which case they are witnesses that could be useful to you.

I doubt the police will put much effort into it if it's a small amount of money. They'll probably tell you its a civil matter and that you should sue him. Also, it is illegal in many jurisdictions to threaten criminal action in order to obtain a civil compromise or money (even if it's owed); in those jurisdictions extortion may be a more serious crime than the one he may have committed. If you're going to call the cops, just do it, and otherwise, don't mention it to anyone at all.

Good luck. I really hope you get your money back.
posted by Hylas at 12:59 PM on May 24, 2011

(My stature and personality are not exactly intimidating, and this is definitely not something I have any experience in dealing with.)

Semi-related, in that this may help you stand up for yourself --

I am all of five feet tall, and have a mid-high Alto voice. Ooh, yeah, fear me. *cough* Right. Anyway, something I've learned is that an extremely straight posture, a quarter-step forward, and dropping your voice an octave can do wonders for people taking your shit seriously. Bonus points if you have a decent set of lungs, and can draw in a really good breath to be VERY LOUD. (Swimming is good practice for lung capacity, btw.)

If you do end up in a face-to-face situation where he's being avoidant, press the issue. Keep him off guard. Distract him with an inconsequential question, and then blindside him. Sun Tzu's Art of War ain't just for military actions.

(This is of course only my opinion. Being small-sized and possessed of a somewhat high-pitched voice means I end up treating social situations much differently.)
posted by Heretical at 1:00 PM on May 24, 2011

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