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Operators of Rental Service Plead No Contest to Theft

May 30, 1996|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — The operators of a home-finding service, who sold lists of properties supposedly available for rent, pleaded no contest Wednesday to charges of grand theft and were ordered to pay restitution to their customers.

Hugo Beltran of Glendale and Joseph E. Perez of Mission Hills were also sentenced in Los Angeles Municipal Court to jail--180 days for Beltran and 90 for Perez--as part of their plea bargain. They were also ordered to deposit $15,000 in a fund from which reimbursements will be paid.

Beltran and Perez operated Express Homes, a Van Nuys-based service that made available lists of apartments and homes for about $150 apiece. Each list contained addresses of numerous properties that were supposedly for rent.

"Very few, if any, of the addresses were legitimate," said Deputy City Atty. Mark Lambert, who prosecuted the case. "Many had been rented months ago, some had phone numbers that never answered and some of the addresses didn't exist at all."

Lambert said his office has identified nearly 100 people who bought the lists and will be reimbursed.

Express Homes is one of about a dozen rental listing services that have sprung up in the last two years in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.

Earlier this month, the operator of two Burbank home-finding services also pleaded no contest to breaking the law, and several more services are under investigation, Lambert said.

He said that companies selling bogus rental lists are often able to stay in operation for long periods of time because individual victims lose only $150 apiece, and so often do not report the loss.

"When you are talking a modest amount of money--even though this is a lot of money to some--people are not likely to file a complaint," Lambert said. "They don't realize how many other victims are out there."

The investigation into Express Homes began with a complaint from a Sunland landlady, relayed to the city attorney's office by City Councilman Joel Wachs' office, Lambert said. The woman said she had received calls from several people who bought the Express Homes lists, even though she had never made arrangements for the listing and had already rented her property.

"She called the company several times, trying to get her name off the list, but they refused," Lambert said.

The city attorney's office investigated and found that complaints had been lodged against Express Homes with the Better Business Bureau and other city agencies.

Those who believe they might be entitled to a refund from Express Homes should contact the city attorney's Consumer Protection Unit at (213) 485-4515, Lambert said.

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