in which i discover yet another internet scam

Looking for rental houses on Craigslist, I've discovered a scam that I was previously unaware of.

I replied to an ad for a place that sounded wonderful, with unusually low rent. I was keeping in mind the old maxim "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," but at the same time, it's only an email. It can't hurt to ask.

Everything I wanted to know about the property was answered in the affirmative. Then the supposed owner told me that I should fill out a rental application and, if approved, I could see the place.

Hmm. It's been six years since we looked for a place to live, but I'm pretty sure you don't fill out an application before you even see a property, unless you're working with a real estate agent. That would be a colossal waste of time. And why would I send personal information to a person I haven't even met, for a house I might not even want?

I tried to arrange a time to see the house, saying I would bring the completed application with me, and if we liked the house, submit the application on the spot.

Supposed Owner said he would not meet me at the house. He would give me the address and send keys "by secure courier". OK. That is weird.

At the same time, I heard back from another ad I replied to, also with an extremely low rent. This Supposed Owner had to leave the country suddenly for missionary work! They would give me an address where I could see the exterior of the house, and would mail me the keys.

Next stop: Google. "Rental scams." Dozens of sites describe this very common scam, but the SCAMwatch website, run by the Government of Australia, is particularly concise.
Fake rental properties and shared accommodation listings

Prospective tenants are being ripped off by fake rental property and shared accommodation listings on the internet posted by scammers.

SCAMwatch is warning prospective tenants to be wary when responding to rental properties advertised on the net where the 'owner' makes various excuses as to why you can't inspect the property but insists on an upfront payment for rent or deposit.

Scammers will often use various shared accommodation sites to post these fake listings. They will go to great lengths to ensure that the offer looks genuine by including photos and real addresses of properties. However, photos and details of properties can be easily obtained on the internet.

Once hooked, the scammer will request money, often via money transfer, or personal details upfront to 'secure' the rental property. SCAMwatch warns consumers not to send money or provide personal details to people you don't know and trust.

Warning signs - what to watch out for:

- Too good to be true offers.

- Ongoing excuses as to why the property cannot be viewed, such as the owner is overseas.

- Securing the property requires an up front fee via money transfer.

- The prospective landlord lives overseas.

How to protect yourself

- Insist on inspecting the property - a drive-by is not enough. With these types of scams, the property may genuinely exist, but it is owned by someone else.

- If it is overseas, ask someone you can trust to make inquiries. If there is a real estate agent or similar in the area they may be able to assist.

- Do not rely on any information provided to you from anyone recommended by the person advertising the property.

- An internet search on the name of the person offering the property and their email address may provide useful information.

- Where possible, avoid paying via money transfer. It is rare to recover money sent this way.
Today in the Craigslist housing listings, I noticed two ads, both identical to ads I saw yesterday - same photo, same text - but with the rent 30% lower. The poster hadn't even bothered to change conflicting information: the text said "no smoking no pets," but the Craigslist template was set to "cats OK dogs OK". (Example: original ad, scam ad.)

Like many people, when I heard about these scams in the past, I used to blame the victim. How could anyone fall for this? Now I take a more generous view. People can't know what they haven't been taught. Need or desire can blind us, and affordable housing is rarer than an honest real estate agent.

It's not just fresh-off-the-boat rubes and hayseeds that get taken. This New York Times article describes "a woman in her 20s who works in finance at a major investment bank" who came close to falling for a scam. Several people described in that article thought they were savvy, but ended up forking over money to con men.


johngoldfine said...

I fell for a 3-card monte set-up outside Grand Central Station back in 1963...back when $25 dollars meant something! What can I say! I was a hick, a rube, and you can't cheat an honest man.

Anyway, Laura, playing nice defense!

tim said...

Just catching up on this news - omg, can't believe the flood (and the ensuing, gross aftermath) - glad the four of you are OK and getting out of there! Totally unacceptable to be expected by your landlord to live in a cesspool.

Sorry to hear this happened to your house (again) - what a nightmare.

I assume you've been using Kijiji to look for housing? Craiglist isn't that good in Canada, I have found it is littered with scams (Kijiji does a better job of weeding them out...maybe because more people use it and report them?)... From personal experience, I don't think I know a single person that uses craigslist in Canada (most everyone I know that uses these services online uses Kijiji). The two are essentially the same thing (Kijiji just looks a little prettier than craigslist).

IMO, the biggest difference is the fact that Kijiji is much more widely used than craigslist so you get more listings, better quality, less scams, etc.

Housing is stressful and moving sucks, but its definitely time to make a change - still shocked and horrified at those pics of your basement from last week!

tim said...

just in case... kijiji mississauga housing

laura k said...

Thanks for your sympathy! It sucks. But we're on it. Or I am. Allan is on his book. He's not allowed to do anything else. :)

And thanks for the tips, too. I've been checking Kijiji and Craigslist. I find the same properties on both. Definitely more scams on CL, but all the (real) rental houses that are listed on one are on the other.

I also found two realtors who show rentals, and they sent a few things from MLS.

I'm hoping we can find something by the end of the week.

John F said...

Here's a recent example of the scam from Halifax. The SOB in this case ripped off 30 students.

John F said...

To be fair, in the case I just cited, the scammer actually showed the victims an apartment. They found out on move-in day, when multiple sets of students showed up to take possession of the same place.

laura k said...

They found out on move-in day, when multiple sets of students showed up to take possession of the same place.

Ugh! I've heard of that happening in many university/college situations.

laura k said...

Hey John F, the link doesn't work. Can you repost?

John F said...

Whoops! That's what I get for entering HTML by hand.

OK, here is an article about the initial charges, and here's one detailing the guilty plea.

If I screwed up again, just search the name Cyrano Carette for details.

laura k said...

The first victim contacted police in April 2012 and told them he had responded to a Kijiji ad for an apartment for rent in Halifax. The man met with the landlord, inspected the apartment, signed a lease and paid a deposit but never heard from him again, police said.

THAT is scary! How on earth could you protect yourself against that?

(Links working!)

John F said...

On the plus side, the scammer is an idiot. He showed his victims an apartment that could be traced to his name.

Both buildings were owned at the time by Loucar Properties Ltd., of which Carette was company president, treasurer, director and recognized agent.

He doesn't appear to have thought through all the steps of his Cunning Plan.