Alfonso Salazar, 62, was arrested and charged with multiple counts of burglary, grand theft and perjury in connection with a fraudulent rental scheme involving at least four foreclosed or unoccupied homes in Walnut Creek, Hercules, Antioch, and Brentwood since last October, said Deputy District Attorney Ken McCormick.
The prosecutor said that Salazar's scheme likely touched some 20 households, and that authorities expect to find more victims as the investigation unfolds.
"It's possible that there are more homes out there - and it's possible that the banks don't know about it," he said.
While investigators have found evidence that Salazar rented out empty homes since October, McCormick said he could have been defrauding renters for much longer.
"Individuals like (Salazar) are just taking advantage of this economic downturn," he said. "The people who pay this rent are ultimately going to be evicted."
Salazar, a longtime Contra Costa County resident and former licensed real estate agent, sought out homes that were unoccupied or in foreclosure, the prosecutor said.
Scattered throughout Contra Costa County, the empty homes were valued between $215,000 and $742,000, according to the district attorney's office.
Salazar would post a note on a home claiming the property was now owned by National Alliance of Homeowners for Justice, a Southern California-based company that employed him, McCormick said.
If no one came forward to object, the former real estate agent would change the property's locks and use Craigslist to target unsuspecting renters.
Drawing on his realty expertise, Salazar drew up sophisticated lease documents that gave renters no reason to doubt his credibility, McCormick said.
"He know how to talk the talk and walk the walk, because he's been a real estate agent," the prosecutor said.
Victims of the scheme thought little of handing over first and last month's rent and a security deposit, he said.
McCormick said it is unclear whether the company Salazar worked for was aware of his scheme or if he was acting independently, but that there are multiple people of interest in the case.
An investigation was launched in October after Walnut Creek and Hercules police came to the district attorney's office with questions about Salazar's rental practices, McCormick said.
The district attorney's office has so far seized $35,000 of Salazar's ill-gotten gains, but the prosecutor said that amount might be just a portion of the money the defendant has received from falsified rental agreements.
Attorneys said they hope to be able to return the money to those Salazar targeted once criminal proceedings have ended.
Salazar is set to appear in court in Pittsburg on March 8 to enter a plea and remains in county jail on $180,000 bail.
Anyone who believes they may have been victimized by Salazar is urged to contact Senior Inspector Darryl Holcombe at (925) 957-8762.