Credit: File Photo - Darrow Montgomery

Last spring, Olivia Gardner found on Craigslist what she thought was the perfect apartment.

The studio unit, located on the third floor of a stylish Woodley Park condo building, was about 500 square feet and had recently been upgraded. Better yet, the apartment, listed at $1,400 a month, was pet friendly; it had been tough finding a building that would house her 70-pound dog.

It was supposed to be Gardner’s first apartment that was truly her ownthe first she found and applied for by herself, the first she decorated alone and lived in solo. Gardner had recently ended a relationship and was trying to move quickly, and she was looking seriously at the D.C. rental market for the first time after spending several years in Fairfax while attending George Mason University. 

That was the last time Gardner would trust looking at condo rental units.

On March 6, 2019, the person who claimed to be the landlord of Gardner’s Woodley Park unit emailed her, requesting personal information for her rental application and a $4,200 deposit to reserve the apartment—a security deposit of $1,400, plus the first two months of rent. 

But there was a catch: The agent, who identified himself as Millard Howard, told Gardner she couldn’t look at the unit until nearly three weeks later, on March 24. If the apartment wasn’t satisfactory, the lease said, Gardner would be refunded the full amount. 

After verifying the broker number provided to Gardner by the agent, the now-27-year-old paid the deposit. Just days after Gardner signed the lease, she received another message from her new landlord: Pay us an additional $2,400 in HOA fees, or we’ll cancel the lease. The email, which Gardner calls a “red flag,” prompted her to request that Howard refund her deposit and cancel the lease. 

Nearly one year and half a dozen promises later, Gardner still hasn’t gotten her money back—and hasn’t heard from the person claiming to be Millard Howard. 

All told, Gardner spent $4,200 to secure an apartment that was never for rent, wiping out her savings in the process. 

Gardner’s story, which she shared with City Paper, is now central to a lawsuit filed on Wednesday against the person posing as Millard Howard. Neither Gardner nor her attorney, Leigh Higgins of the D.C. Tenants’ Rights Center, know the agent’s identity. (He is identified in the suit only as John Doe. The real Millard Howard, a licensed real estate broker, signed an affidavit denying any involvement in the scheme.)

Gardner isn’t the only person who fell victim to the scam, which appears sophisticated in its depth. Higgins is also representing Allen Storm, a 23-year-old tax associate who moved to the District last year from Dallas, and was also swindled out of several thousand dollars by the person posing as Millard Howard after executing a lease for an apartment on 14th St. NW.

“Intent on hiding his spoils from justice, John Doe used mules to launder Plaintiffs’ money into untraceable virtual Bitcoin,” the joint suit reads. “They seek this Court’s help to turn over rocks in search of John Doe and at least $50,000 in damages. They hope to put a stop to this racket before Defendants can ensnare any more victims.”

The real owner of the unit that Gardner tried to rent has signed an affidavit claiming that she is aware of two other instances in which a person posing as Millard Howard has tried to rent out her condo unit. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has also previously reached out to the real Millard Howard, who is a licensed real estate broker working in the D.C. area, in connection to a separate complaint filed by a tenant involved in a similar rental scam, according to Gardner’s suit. (Not even six months after Gardner’s incident, the same person posing as Millard Howard emailed her again about yet another apartment unit.)

In each case, the person posing as Millard Howard told the prospective tenants that their apartments wouldn’t be available to view until after they executed the lease, and tried to squeeze thousands more dollars from them after the fact through hidden HOA fees. 

Gardner and Storm are now suing John Doe for fraud, wrongful withholding of security deposit, breach of contract, and D.C. Consumer Protection Procedures Act violations.

Efforts to find Howard lead into a dizzying maze of digital pathways that circle back on each other until you reach a dead end. The person posing as Millard Howard supplied the same phone number as contact information in each lease. City Paper tried to trace that phone number, which appears to be a landline associated with a business on 14th St. NW just north of New York Ave. NW, but was unable to reach anybody. The number has an automated voice message system and does not name its owner. Other phone numbers listed in Gardner and Storm’s leases trace back to Atlanta and Chicago. Addresses listed as Howard’s office appear to be private condominiums.

One person involved in the scheme is easier to track. The person named in Gardner’s lease as owning the bank account where she sent the deposit is Rodrigo Hurtado, a self-help book author who lives in Texas and operates two LLCs, one called and one called Ultimate Vision Investments. A recent title published under Hurtado’s name is called The Road to Success.

When Higgins reached out to Hurtado by email in July of last year to confront him over his role in the alleged fraud, he denied wrongdoing.

“Mr. Howard’s associate never told me where the money was coming from,” he wrote, adding that he met the person posing as Millard Howard online, and that he believed he would be making bitcoin investments on Howard’s behalf. That email is included as evidence in Gardner’s lawsuit. “I was scammed as well in this situation by Millard Howard and whoever else he’s associated with. I never signed any of those documents. I do not manage any trusts … I have never had any contact with Mr. Howard.”

Gardner is suing Hurtado for unjust enrichment over her $4,200 deposit. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We have sort of the impression that it’s a persistent issue, but not exactly a pervasive one,” says Joel Cohn, the legislative director of the Office of the Tenant Advocate. He estimates that 10-12 rental scams involving Craigslist come to the office’s doors every year, but concedes that number likely does not reflect the breadth of the issue since the tenants involved are often new to D.C. and don’t know to report issues to OTA.

Gardner, for her part, says she’s “cautiously optimistic” about the outcome of the case. 

“I think that’s entirely appropriate to wondernot only how many people, but how long” this scam has been going on, Higgins says. “This is sophisticated, and I think everybody has seen something on Craigslist that immediately raises red flags and makes you think, ‘obviously, this is a scam.’ But these don’t fall into that category.”