In Toronto’s hyper-competitive rental market, optimism can quickly turn to desperation. And when renters get desperate, they’ll find there are a growing number of fraudsters out there ready to prey on them.
With a vacancy rate in the city of just 1.5% — and renters and real estate agents who’ve said bidding wars are not uncommon for many rental units — finding a decent place to rent in Toronto can feel downright impossible.
Enter the scammers. There are various ways that scammers have been known to con would-be tenants, including the increasingly common tactic of renting a unit for the short term (usually through Airbnb or a similar service), and then posting their own ad of that unit to rent out. Once they get their money, they cut and run, leaving the victims to eventually be evicted by the actual owners.
When I did a quick poll around the office, I was surprised (and saddened) to hear that two of my co-workers have had their own run-ins with scammers. They both agreed to share their stories in hopes of helping others avoid similar encounters.
The bait and switch
Our associate product manager, Ankur, was 21-years-old and finishing up his third year at Queen’s University when he landed a summer internship in Toronto. Excited to move to the city and eager to start a new job, he started apartment hunting with another friend also making the move from Kingston to Toronto.
“We were looking for a place to rent and not having much luck using Facebook groups and other resources like that, so we checked out Kijiji. We had luck using it for other things in the past, so we thought it’d be a good place to look,” Ankur says.
It didn’t take long before the pair found a unit that looked nice, was in a good location, and fit their price range. They immediately contacted the ad poster by email, who responded back just as quickly. “At the start, the guy was super nice and responsive, he seemed very accommodating in every way. My friend and I both decided it seemed like it would be a good fit.”
Because the two were still in Kingston finishing up school, they had his friend’s sister check out the place for them.
“She went and checked it out and everything seemed good, so she gave us the thumbs up. We agreed that we’d rent the unit for four months starting on May 1,” Ankur says.
At the start, the guy was super nice and responsive, he seemed very accommodating in every way
Though they hadn’t yet signed a lease or agreement (the plan was that they would do that once they were in Toronto), they sent an e-transfer of $500 to their new landlord to secure the rental. Ankur was happy to have figured out his housing situation so quickly, and moved on to planning the rest of the move. Unfortunately though, a week before their agreed move-in date, things got weird.
“The guy we were supposed to rent from said he was no longer going to be available when we needed to sign the lease and move into the place. He said he was going to be out of the country and unreachable by phone. Instead, we were supposed to go through who he claimed was his roommate.”
At this point they had a feeling that something was off and were getting worried about the legitimacy of their agreement. And then things got even weirder when they received the lease over email.
“When we got the lease there was no first name on it, just a last name. Which meant we weren’t even able to look this person up online or on social media to see if we’d even been dealing with a real person,” Ankur says.
Despite feeling uneasy (and frankly, desperate) about the situation, they agreed they’d hope for the best and see what happened when they arrived in Toronto. Once they started dealing with the ‘roommate’, though, things got worse.
“He was extremely rude to us and extremely demanding. He was telling us that he wasn’t going to meet us at the apartment, he was going to meet us at a print shop. He also demanded that we pay only in cash for our first and last month’s rent,” Ankur says. “He wouldn’t let us e-transfer it or give him a cheque. We wanted to do it that way so we could create a paper trail, but he refused.”
It was at this point they realized they were dealing with scammers, and they decided it was time to cut their losses. After they told the men they were no longer interested, they never heard from either of them again.
He wouldn’t let us e-transfer it or give him a cheque. We wanted to do it that way so we could create a paper trail, but he refused
Not only did they lose their $500 deposit but they were left with nowhere to live. Thankfully with the help of a few friends and the University of Toronto job board, they were able to secure a last minute rental just in time.
After doing some research, Ankur thinks that what would likely have happened had they paid and moved in was that they’d be evicted within a week.
“The two men we were dealing with probably had no legal right to rent the unit, so we’d be kicked out by the actual owners when they found out we were there.”
In the end, they were glad to have only lost $500 and not the couple thousand more they were close to handing over.
The missing landlord
Our personal finance writer, 25-year-old Dominic, recently found himself in a similar situation. Having finally decided it was time to move out of his parents house and get a place of his own, he was on the hunt for a rental to call home.
Finding an affordable two-bedroom apartment (to share with a friend) in the downtown core was proving to be more difficult than expected, which is why Dominic was excited to find what he described as “pretty much exactly what we were looking for” one day while perusing Craigslist.
The find was a two-bedroom condo in a new building close to Bathurst and Bloor. It had never been lived in, looked great in the photos, and the best part? It was listed at just $1,300 per month.
“It was so much below market price it was amazing. I thought it might be legit, because in the ad it specified they were looking for a prime tenant to live there and take care of the unit, because the owners would be in and out of the country,” Dominic recalls.
It was so much below market price it was amazing. The ad specified they were looking for a prime tenant to live there and take care of the unit, because the owners would be in and out of the country
Not wanting to pass up what seemed like a great deal, Dominic quickly sent an email to inquire about scheduling a viewing. Soon after he got a response confirming that they could go and look at the unit — but that the landlord wouldn’t be joining them as he was out of the country. They were told not to worry, because the door would be left unlocked for them.
“That’s when I started to realize that something was pretty odd about this. When I got that email back I decided to run it past a few friends and coworkers to see what they thought. Everyone I talked to agreed it was pretty weird. Plus, I‘d been warned before to watch out for apartment scams,” Dominic says.
Luckily, Dominic decided against moving forward with this rental. Looking back, he says that he “can see pretty clearly it was a scam. I don’t even know what would have happened if I went to look at the unit. To be honest, it was all pretty sketchy.”
Don’t fall victim to a rental scam
Anyone who rents needs to be aware of the signals of a rental scam.
We asked Tia Pham, a Toronto-based realtor, for her advice on how prospective tenants can ensure they don’t become a victim.
“My biggest piece of advice would be to make sure you take emotion out of the process. Make sure you’re taking time to think things through, and if you need more time to go home and think about something, take it,” Pham recommends.
My biggest piece of advice would be to make sure you take emotion out of the process. Make sure you’re taking time to think things through
In addition, Pham also suggests the following in order to protect yourself from falling prey to scammers:
- If you’re looking for a condo or a house, use a real estate agent to help you. They will be able to validate that landlords are who they say they are.
- If renting from a professionally managed rental building, always go to the management office inside the building. Don’t just meet someone at a coffee shop. If possible, see their ID card or something else that proves they work for the company in question.
- Never pay anyone in cash for anything.
- Ensure you are always using reputable sites to find rentals.
- Always make sure you see the place you are renting in person, no number of photos is a substitute for that.
- Read the lease very carefully (if possible, getting a lawyer to read it over is always a good idea)
- Make sure to make photocopies or take photos of all documents you sign and receive.
- Ask for identification from the person you’re dealing with, just like they’d ask you for your identification.