Guadalupe Arrieta needed a home fast after working out a short sale on her San Gabriel house.
So she paid Platinum Consulting $180 to help her find a rental.
"You are desperate, and you start thinking this is the way to go," she said.
Now she says the service was no help at all. The dozen homes she visited were already rented or had higher rents than Platinum advertised, she said. None of the landlords she contacted had heard of Platinum.
Public records and interviews with customers show a pattern of Platinum collecting cash from harried apartment hunters for listings of questionable value, some recycled from Craigslist, the free online classified site.
Some renters said Platinum asserted it had exclusive listings. Others said it offered listings tailored to their criteria. Other customers said the firm promised to set up viewings with landlords. But Platinum's service started and ended with listings that were often inaccurate, according to interviews with six customers, three of whom filed lawsuits. The company also denied requested refunds of its fee, the lawsuits allege.
Arrieta said a Platinum employee denied her a refund, despite a state law that requires refunds if the services don't work out. Platinum required its fee be paid upfront with cash or a money order, according to a customer contract.
"I was so angry with them," said Arrieta, 52.
Customers seeking refunds have sued Platinum six times in Los Angeles County Small Claims Court since 2011. In all but one of the cases, the judge ruled in the customer's favor. In the one case, the suit was dismissed after Platinum and the plaintiff failed to appear in court.
Aliyah Ahmad accused Platinum Consulting of "unethical business, consumer deceit" in a small claims lawsuit she won in May.
Leland Guthrie sued Platinum Consulting in September 2011. He alleged that Platinum "demonstrated a pattern of giving me false information, attempting to intimidate me and refusing my multiple requests for a refund," according to court documents.
The California Bureau of Real Estate is investigating Platinum because of customer complaints, said Carlos Martinez, owner of Platinum Consulting in Rosemead. A spokesperson for the bureau declined to confirm any investigation.
Martinez called the complaints unfounded. He disputed that Platinum claims to offer exclusive listings. Further, Platinum can't be held responsible for inaccuracies, he said. Martinez said he gets the listings from property management companies and Craigslist. If they are fake or contain errors, he said, "That is not something I can control."
Asked why property owners on his lists say they have never heard of Platinum, Martinez said he waits to contact owners until his customers express interest in their rentals.
Martinez, interviewed at his home, declined to answer any further questions. It remains unclear if Platinum receives any listings directly from owners. State law requires listing services to get permission from property owners or managers before advertising their rentals.
Platinum has attracted the bureau's attention before. In July 2010, the bureau ordered the service to stop operating without a license. The bureau also alleged Platinum had failed to provide multiple customers with listings for "suitable real properties for tenancy."
At the time, Natalie Rodriguez was listed in public records as the owner of Platinum Consulting. Martinez, who is licensed to run the service, said Rodriguez remains his business partner. Rodriguez could not be reached for comment.
Rental schemes flourished during the housing crash, the Bureau of Real Estate said in a 2012 fraud alert. Foreclosures exploded, and former homeowners flooded the rental market, creating an environment ripe for rental listing scams, the agency warned. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that boosted protections for consumers using rental listing services and made enforcement easier for authorities.
"The people who can least afford it are usually those who are victimized," said state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), who introduced the bill. Other schemes proliferated as well.
Some masqueraded as landlords for foreclosed homes, collecting deposits or rent for properties they didn't own. Others hawked homes that didn't exist.