Free Tools to Avoid Online Fraud

The Sorrento family's vacation plans almost were ruined when a phony landlord tried to get thousands of dollars out of them for a beach rental in Florida. Now they're using their experience to help others avoid a similar mistake.

It’s a scheme we’ve reported on time and again - people renting homes they don't really own. The pictures and price may look great, until it's time to move in and the house isn't there to rent.

Tammy Sorrento thought she found the perfect deal for a family vacation home in Key West.

“Our family, we get together once a year and we rent a home because it is cost prohibitive for us all to rent hotel rooms,” Sorrento said.

When something didn't seem quite right, she trusted that nagging voice in her head.

“I’m an insurance professional, so I started off investigating claims. I also was an agent,” she said.

Using the skills she learned on the job, she searched and learned the man trying to get money from her didn't own that vacation home. Ultimately, she saved herself from losing thousands of dollars.

Sorrento wants to help others do the same, recently launching the company “Fireball Approves.” Through it, she searches and vets people selling cars and homes. Sorrento said she provides as much detail as she can about the true owner, so clients can make a smart decision.

“It’s really gratifying to be able to say yes that person really does own that vehicle, everything lined up and that vehicle hasn’t been stolen. So that person now has the assurance to make that transaction,” she said.

Sorrento said she gives assurance, not insurance. She can only confirm someone actually owns a house or a car as of the day she conducts the search. She also verifies their contact information. Anything that happens after that, she said, is beyond her control.

“We’re making sure that you are dealing with the owner. We are not confirming that the pictures on the inside are correct. That is not our business,” Sorrento said.

The company has already helped hundreds of people get more information about the homes and cars they're buying and it’s looking to grow. So far, the search is free, but there will be a charge in the future. 

Sorrento uses databases to check the information. There are free tools available to look up ownership – but they take some digging. Many counties have their own websites where people can find a property owner. For instance, Dallas has an online database under the Appraisal District where users can search by address. The tax assessor’s office can provide public information free, either online or in person, depending on the rules of each jurisdiction.

Verifying vehicle history for free can be tricky, as information can be limited. The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles has a list of approved providers for title checks. Fees range from a few dollars on up, depending on the company selected.

The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) is a great resource to help consumers avoid fraud.

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