Police conducted a sting Thursday morning and arrested an Escalon man suspected of tricking victims into renting Modesto homes he didn't own.
Cornell Albescu, 49, was arrested on suspicion of burglary and grand theft in the rental scam, which lured victims through ads on Craigslist and produced illegal profits in the thousands, said Modesto police Sgt. Doug Ridenour.
The burglary charge stems from Albescu's trespassing in the homes and buying a rental agreement form with the intent of committing a felony.
Mike Russo and Anthony Russo, believed to be Puerto Rico residents, are suspected of running the rental scam with Albescu. The Russos are wanted by police. Detectives are not sure if they are brothers.
Since Sept. 21, Modesto residents were victimized by the Craigslist ads for rental properties, including numerous Stanislaus County homes, police said.
Ridenour said most of the homes are foreclosed, and the scam is conducted without the homeowner's knowledge. The suspects also created Craigslist ads to hire handymen to clean the vacant homes, he said.
The Russos apparently never set foot in the homes. They relied on other people to break into the homes and leave doors open for the handymen.
Ridenour said the Russos communicated with the handymen via e-mails and phone calls. The Russos would tell the handymen the back door was open, for example, so they could walk in and get to work.
Ridenour said the handymen who answered the ads were unknowingly part of the scam and victimized too, believing they were going to be paid for their services after the tenants rented the home.
The Russos asked the handymen to go to the vacant homes and assess their condition and report back to them.
"Once the home is cleaned up and ready for tenancy, the prospective renter meets with the handymen to rent the home," said Detective Adam Messer.
The handymen took deposits from prospective tenants and wired the money to the suspects, police said.
Last week, two victims met separately with handymen at a north Modesto home and agreed to rent it, said Detective Ray Bennett.
"Both victims gave $1,600 dollars to the handymen for the first and last (month's) payment and entered into a rental agreement for the home," Bennett said.
The owner of the home discovered the scam and told police and the victims. The handymen told police they had wired the money to the Russos at a Puerto Rico address.
Ridenour said Albescu posed as a handyman and was involved in a similar scam earlier this week.
A detective warned Albescu to stop any involvement with the Craigslist scam, police said. The detectives said they later learned Albescu continued to meet with potential victims.
Two undercover detectives posing as renters met Albescu on Thursday at a home in the 3900 block of Beyer Park Drive in Modesto. Detectives had confirmed with the owner that nobody was authorized to rent the house.
Albescu agreed to accept money from the detectives to rent the home and was arrested, Ridenour said.
Several homes in Stanislaus County were the focus of the scam in the past two weeks. Ridenour estimates $6,000 was stolen from victims in Stanislaus County.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.