WILHELMINA JONES and her daughter made sure to do their homework before renting their house in Southwest Philadelphia.

Jones is ailing and out of work and her daughter was eight months pregnant at the time. The $3,000 they had for rent and security deposit was a gift from a family member; there was no more where it came from.

"We know there's a lot of people out there who are flim-flam artists and we didn't want to get involved in no real life drama," Jones said.

So they checked city records on the two-story brick rowhouse, and it seemed as if everything was on the up and up. But the caution turned out to have been for naught.

Kia Morrison, the woman who rented them the property on Edgewood Street near Elmwood Avenue, had lost it at sheriff's sale three months earlier.

It was a fact they hadn't uncovered in their research - and a fact they said Morrison didn't disclose.

The real owner is Wells Fargo Bank, which - despite pleas from a city official - is evicting them along with the infant who was born in the meantime.

"This is a bad place to be," Jones said.

"We have a two-month-old baby here. I'm ill. My daughter is struggling, trying to get back to work. It's horrendous."

This kind of rental scam has always been part of the city landscape, as desperate low-income families are defrauded by heartless predators who take money for property they pretend to own.

But, with skyrocketing real estate values and condo conversions going on all over the city, the situation is getting worse by the day.

"I think it's becoming increasingly common," said Phil Lord, of the Tenant Union Representative Network.

"I hadn't seen it that much before. Now I'm seeing it on a weekly basis."

And the perpetrators easily get away with it.

They usually can't be found. And the short-staffed district attorney's office has a $50,000 threshold on prosecutions of economic crime.

That leaves people like Wilhelmina Jones and her family with nowhere to turn.

It's going to get worse instead of better: The financially strapped Philadelphia Housing Authority is considering selling hundreds, if not thousands, of its scattered-site properties, making affordable homes that much more scarce and vulnerable families that much more desperate.

While tenants can protect themselves by asking a landlord for a Certificate of Rental Suitability - which would confirm he or she is the actual owner and that the property is free of serious code violations - they rarely do.

Chances are, it might keep a tenant out of the position that Jones and her daughter, Janaya Pulliam, find themselves in.

Jones, who worked for the Post Office for 13 years before becoming ill last year, moved into the house with her daughter in late September.

Less than a month later, right after the baby was born, they received notice that Wells Fargo had foreclosed on Morrison's mortgage and taken title to the house June 6.

They had to get out. And they had lost their $3,000. I couldn't reach Kia Morrison - who is also identified in court papers as the property owner - to comment for this column.

Jones began making frantic phone calls, to no avail. Lance Haver, the city's director of consumer affairs, intervened when their water was cut off last month.

Haver said he was rebuffed when he asked Wells Fargo to show some mercy by giving Jones and her family time to raise money to find another place, provide them a specific date to vacate, and restore the water until then.

"They're living in limbo, that at any moment, they could be thrown out," Haver said.

He argued that having the house occupied until it was resold would prevent vandalism.

"It was my hope that the mortgage company would have a heart in recognizing the family was victimized.

"They don't stand to lose a single cent - and in fact, by having the family there, they're protecting their interests."

But the bank declined to do anything. Haver had the water turned on himself. Bank attorney Martha Von Rosenstiel said, "I don't have any information" about the occupants being victims of a scam.

She told me she couldn't discuss the specifics of the case, and said her job was to get her client "possession of a property they own."

Haver said he explained the scam at length to the lawyer's assistant and said the bank was just being "meanspirited, cold and heartless."

There already are - incredibly - 100,000 people on the PHA waiting list. If PHA sells off thousands of units, as spokesman Kirk Dorn told me yesterday it might, the situation will be even more dire for people needing affordable housing.

"There's a crisis in affordable housing that's getting worse every day," said tenant activist Phil Lord. "It's evident that things are changing in a way that hurts people who are on the fringes;

they're vulnerable to this kind of scam."

Wilhelmina Jones mourns the loss of the paycheck that would have bailed them out. Her daughter, Janaya, 24, has returned to work as a hairdresser at a South Philadelphia salon and is trying to rebuild the business she lost during her maternity leave.

They're trying to figure out how to get the money together to find another place to live.

"It's horrendous the burden we've been inflicted upon because these people want to pull a scam," Jones said. "Something needs to be done." *

E-mail porterj@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5850. For recent columns: