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.
Platinum customers say the firm promised access to an exclusive list of rentals.
"They told us they have special information that only they have," said Helen Quach, 43.
Most prospective renters now turn to free online listings. But some people turn to listing services in hopes of speeding up a cumbersome process. The companies promise superior lists and sometimes added services, such as scheduling meetings with landlords.
Others focus on a specific city or community. The services tend to proliferate during a tight rental market, and many don't stay in business long. Others are more entrenched and reputable — such as Westside Rentals, a prominent Los Angeles-area service founded in 1996.
California requires such services to issue refunds if the service doesn't work out. If customers fail to find a home during the contract, or find one on their own, they are entitled to their money back, minus $50 that the services keep as a fee.
Quach said she found a home on her own in summer 2012 and applied for a refund. Platinum, she said, required a utility bill to prove she found a place by herself.
When she submitted proof, Quach said, Platinum promised the check would arrive soon. Months passed with no refund, she said. She sued in January 2013.
"They try to find any excuse not to give it to you," she said.
Quach won the small claims case after Platinum failed to appear in court. She was awarded $195.
The bureau says tenants should be wary of services that demand customers go through them to set up home viewings — after paying a fee — rather than providing a contact for the property manager. Platinum customers said the firm sometimes provided contacts, but other times insisted on acting as middleman.
"Any time you are being forced into a situation to pay up front, especially in cash, for something you can't see ... those are big flashing lights saying, 'Don't work with this company,' " said Michael Schaffer, general manager of CheckYourLandlord.com, a business that seeks to help renters avoid problems.
Tenants should also watch for properties advertised at an extremely low rent — a red flag that the listing is fake — as well as services that promise exclusive listings, he said. Landlords usually want to spread the word about their rentals as widely as possible.
"There is almost no such thing as exclusive," Schaffer said.
Ke Sun, 32, drove to the L.A. area from San Diego in June to look for apartments. He went to Platinum's Rosemead office, hoping the service could help him find an apartment before he started as a researcher at Caltech. Sun paid $180 and gave personal information, including his Social Security number for a credit check, which could be passed on to landlords, he said.
A Platinum employee handed him a collection of addresses, only one of which had a phone number for the owner, Sun said. The employee promised "their people" would show the Pasadena apartment, he said.
When Sun arrived, the owner told him she had never given any information to Platinum, he said. Sun said he tried to schedule more showings through Platinum, but had no luck.
"No one would answer the phone," he said.