How to avoid getting scammed by fake landlords

Students report rental fraud from Halifax to Calgary

When Adam Michaleski decided to move from Manitoba to Calgary after graduating from Brandon University this spring, he didn’t expect to lose $1,300 and a place to live. But a fake landlord he found on Kijiji who showed him around a nice place took his e-transfer for a damage deposit and then disappeared without a trace.

Rental fraud is a widespread problem for students. A landlord in Halifax recently made off with more than $10,000 after scamming at least 30 people out of their cash, reported CBC Nova Scotia. While the police caught that perpetrator, who pleaded guilty, many cases go unresolved.

Dana Drover, who investigates financial fraud for the Halifax Regional Police, says it’s important for renters to leave a paper trail. If the landlord is paid with a cheque instead of cash or e-transfer, “there’s solid evidence that the money left the account and landed in the account of the recipient.” The two peak periods for rental scams are when students come to university in the fall and when they leave in the spring, he says. A telltale sign of fraud is a landlord who seems rushed, he adds.

Robert Malach, a law professor at the University of Calgary, says scammers let would-be tenants like Michaleski into real rental units to appear like real landlords. Michaleski only realized something was wrong three weeks before his move-in date when he called to hash out the details and received no response. “His phone went straight to a voicemail that isn’t activated,” he says. “No response from his email. This is where I started freaking out. I knew I had been scammed.”

Michaleski took to Reddit to get help and warn others. There his fears were confirmed. Other people said they’d given deposits to the same guy. Drover says social media is a good strategy. If there are other victims, they may chime in to the post, which will help the investigation.

But how to prevent getting cheated in the first place (other than writing cheques instead of giving cash or e-transfers)? Drover and Malach agree that research is key. Search online for the name of the rental company the landlord provides or the landlord himself. Call the local tenant board. If there is negative information or a total lack of information, be suspicious. Malach recommends asking for a photo ID or a business card so that you can verify the identity of potential landlords.

Since his awful experience, that’s exactly what Michaleski has done. Despite seeing a rental and a “landlord” with his own two eyes, he still lost $1,300 and a place to live. He made his story public to spread awareness. His advice: “if something seems sketchy, trust your gut and inquire further.”

Jane Lytvynenko is a student at the University of Ottawa.