A rental property owner in New York City’s West Village was recently taken advantage of by a “serial grifter” who turned into a nightmare roommate. Is it possible for property owners to safeguard themselves against these con artists?

Although the federal moratorium on evictions through the CARES Act has expired, many states have put in place their own eviction moratoriums to provide assistance to renters who may be struggling right now as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

While protections like this are a huge source of support for many renters, they can also give grifters a leg up on landlords that they may be trying to take advantage of, as in the recent case of New York renter and serial grifter, Kate Gladstone.

Gladstone has been squatting in a West Village apartment she previously rented out from co-op owner Heidi Russell for over a year now, and cannot be evicted because of New York’s eviction ban, according to the New York Post. As a result, Russell has found herself doing anything to spend less time in her apartment than necessary, despite the ongoing pandemic.

“She’s turned me into a homeless person during the pandemic,” Russell told the Post.

Russell initially rented a room in her and her partner’s apartment to Gladstone in June of 2019 through a short-term agreement, but when Russell’s mother had to undergo surgery, Russell asked Gladstone to leave the apartment by the end of the month, so that her mother could stay with her during recovery. Gladstone did not react well to the news.

“She flew off the handle,” Russell said.

Gladstone refused to leave and brought her daughter into the apartment to live in the spare bedroom while she occupied the living room, moving boxes of her belongings into the common area. Once the pandemic hit, Russell said the situation was exacerbated, as Gladstone started spraying cleaning products throughout the 650-square-foot apartment to excess, and also sprayed Russell with the products as she walked through the apartment.

Russell sued Gladstone — who has been arrested twice for stalking, forgery and grand larceny — but, due to the pandemic, Gladstone will be allowed to stay in the apartment until October 1.

According to court documents, this is the third time Gladstone has squatted in someone’s home. A few weeks ago she offered to leave Russell’s apartment in exchange for $24,000. In her previous squatting history, Gladstone refused to leave a home of an ex-girlfriend until she was paid $20,000, according to court papers.

Even when an eviction moratorium is not in place, it can be challenging to get rid of unwanted residents in a timely fashion, particularly if the agreement started amicably with the property owner offering up a residence for rent.

“An Airbnb guest becomes a tenant the moment they move in,” Frances Campbell, a tenant right’s lawyer for Campbell & Farahani LLP, told Vice in 2016. “By renting out your place on Airbnb, you have become a landlord. That person is now a tenant with tenancy rights, and you cannot evict them without good cause. It’s a nightmare.”

With the pandemic, things have become even more complicated. Real estate developer Marco Ricotta and girlfriend Jodine Russo, for instance, have been staying in the three-bedroom Hamptons property of owners Elyse Zaccaro and Tommy del Zoppo without making rent payments since April, although Zaccaro and del Zoppo argue that the couple has not claimed any financial hardship as a result of the pandemic.

“I don’t have to leave because the governor said so,” Ricotta purportedly told a local official.

How to look out for the warning signs

Current global pandemic aside, how can property owners protect themselves against individuals who may be in the habit of setting up shop and refusing to leave without some kind of financial return?

In short, there’s no easy way. In the case of Russell and Gladstone, for instance, Gladstone had even stayed with Russell before with no issue.

Professional con artists, says psychologist and journalist Maria Konnikova, do not have obvious tics or telltale signs that reveal when they’re lying or trying to swindle you. Konnikova wrote The Confidence Game in 2016, a book that explains the psychology of con artists and explores examples of various successful cons.

In a conversation with The Atlantic, Konnikova explained that, “[humans] haven’t really evolved to spot lies,” so individuals should focus on trying to evaluate concrete things, rather than someone’s tone of voice or facial expressions.

“Instead, you need to rely on other things, like content,” Konnikova said.

If you have fallen victim to a grifter before, you’re likely to become a victim again, Konnikova added.

“There are sucker lists out there that con artists buy and sell of people who’ve already fallen for a scam,” Konnikova told The Atlantic. “Those are the best victims, the ones who have already been victimized once, because they’ve done such a good job rationalizing that they’ll do it again.”

Conducting routine safeguards like background and reference checks can help, as well as taking “down and out” stories with a grain of salt, Criminaldefenselawyer.com advises. Expressions of urgency are also typically red flags.

And, as a general rule — not exclusive to grifter situations with tenants and property owners — if something seems too good to be true, it most likely is.

“There’s no ‘probably’ about it,” Konnikova said. “There really is no such thing as the exception to the rule. It’s a rule for a reason. And you are not the exception.”

Email Lillian Dickerson

coronavirus | rentals
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