Toronto police say apartment rental scams have been rampant during the pandemic
Scammers in Toronto are known to use all different tactics to trick innocent people into handing over their money, from posing as taxi drivers to promising fake puppies, but one police officer says a specific type of scam is particularly rampant in the city right now.
Const. Julie Campbell, a fraud investigator with 43 Division in Scarborough, says she and her partner see incidents of rental scams weekly, and she's warning residents to watch out for the tell-tale signs of this kind of fraud.
"Rental scams have always been an issue in the city as the rental market is competitive," Campbell told blogTO, adding that COVID-19 has made it easier for scammers to come up with more realistic excuses for not offering to show or see a unit in person.
She explained that there are three different types of rental scams that tend to occur in the city: the landlord victim scam, the tenant victim scam and the cottage rental scam.
In the first scenario, a landlord will post an ad about a unit for rent and the scammer will reply saying they plan to take the apartment, but can't come see it in person, often due to a COVID-19-related reason.
The scammer will then send the landlord an electric bank draft for first and last month's rent, but the very next day they'll email saying they can no longer take it, usually because of a medical excuse, and they'll ask the landlord to send the e-transferred money back — though they'll allow the landlord to keep $500 for their trouble.
The landlord then believes they're getting "free money" and agrees to send the e-transfer back, only for the original cheque to later bounce.
In the second scenario, the landlord is the scammer and the tenant is the victim. In this case, a tenant will reply to an ad for a unit that is usually slightly cheaper than most others on the market.
The scammer will then say they can't show the unit to the prospective tenant due to COVID-19 or other reasons, but they'll put pressure on the tenant by saying they're getting many offers and require a deposit that same day.
Closer to move-in day, the scammer will request another deposit by e-transfer for first and last month's rent so the tenant can get the keys.
Once the money is sent, the scammer will ghost the tenant, and upon arriving at the location the victim will learn the place was never for rent in the first place.
"Always attempt to see a unit in person, you are also interviewing your new landlord," said Campbell, adding that if a unit seems too good to be true it probably is.
"Be [cautious] of high pressure and the new landlord requiring little to no background checks. Google the address to ensure it isn't an Airbnb or for sale."
The third rental fraud scenario is related to cottages, and will usually involve a scammer posting an ad for a beautiful country house at a decent price.
In these situations, it seems reasonable for the victim to pay the rent without seeing the property in advance because of the distance, so they'll usually agree to pay the full price and the security deposit.
The victim will then drive to the cottage, only to learn it was never for rent.
"We did see a rise in the cottage scams last summer/fall as it was near impossible to get a cottage," said Campbell, "and I expect the same will happen this year."
To avoid falling for this kind of scam, Campbell recommends looking for red flags from the start, such as whether everything else is booked solid and it seems too good to be true.
She also recommends using caution when landlords don't have a history of positive reviews on rental sites, adding that it's not usually a good sign if a landlord immediately wants to communicate on a third-party app, such as Whatsapp, to "save the fees."
A landlord not conducting any kind of background check on a prospective tenant should also be a red flag, she said, and anyone looking to rent should consider using a credit card instead of an e-transfer, as some cards offer insurance.
It also never hurts to Google the address of the property.
"Use caution when sending money electronically to someone you have never met," she said.
"Very few landlords will rent to a tenant they have never met and haven't conducted a background check on. Have you typed the address in Google to see what is returned? If someone sends you money for any reason and there is an overpayment and they ask you to return the overpayment, about a 99 per cent chance you are being scammed."
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