Fake rental ads target gullible students

Online rental scams appear on Kijiji and Craigslist

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Erin Hoops will look for apartments in person after being caught in an online rental scam. (Photo: Lauren Naish)

When Erin Hoops, a third-year economics student at Dalhousie University, and her friend saw an ad for a two-bedroom apartment on Craigslist, they thought it was too good to be true.

At $900 a month, all included, it was $300 less than any other apartment they had seen. The students decided to follow up on it and email the owner.

"He said he had all the keys and all the paperwork over in Florida," says Hoops. "All he needed from us was a security deposit of $450 to send via Western Union or Credit Union and then he would mail us the keys."

This didn't sit right with Hoops. She wanted more information before wiring the money.

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Lewis Wynne-Jones urges students to be careful when looking for apartments on the web. (Photo: Lauren Naish)

University of King's College graduate Lewis Wynne-Jones came across a similar ad on Kijiji this past summer when he was desperately searching for a place to stay.

Wynne-Jones emailed the ad's creator and was sent back a cryptic response. It stated that the owner was going away and could only conduct business online through direct deposits.

Curious, he copied the email and pasted it directly into Google. The search results confirmed that the response was a scam. Wynne-Jones discovered other responses worded almost exactly like the one he had received. He immediately flagged the ad on Kijiji.

In 2009, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a warning about phony online rental ads. Scams like this were found in several states. An obviously widespread problem, the FBI felt it was necessary to inform the public.

These types of online rental scams aren't new. They are a variation on a scam that has been around since the 1980s and they all have the same variables. A great apartment on Kijiji or Craigslist, a landlord who claims to be out of the country, and the requirement that money be wired in exchange for keys.

Luckily some students catch on to the scam before it's too late.

"I think that one of the reasons that I was able to get out of it, was that I had done apartment searches before," said Wynne-Jones.

For others, the signs are not so clear. Hoops and her friend had a harder time figuring out if their supposed landlord was a fake. He even went so far as to send rental contracts for them to fill out.

They filled them out and emailed them back. But still refused to send him money until they had seen the place.

As time went on, the emails were more vague. For example, he would tell Hoops and her friend the address of the apartment building, but not it's name. After a search, they found the building downtown and decided to pay a visit.

Hoops and her friend found that no one matching their mystery landlord's name had ever rented an apartment there.

Wynne-Jones says these scams worry him, especially at this time of year, when students start apartment hunting.

"My main concern would be people who are going into second year," he says. "They are looking for apartments for the first time and they don't know what's odd."

In Halifax, where the demand for housing is so high, students are more willing to believe what they read online. This may be daunting when you're searching for the perfect sublet.

"You start to get panicky," says Wynne-Jones.

Panic and lack of knowledge are what these scams rely on.

"It comes down to reading things carefully, recognizing what is obviously bad practice and using common sense," says Wynne-Jones.

Wynne-Jones and Hoops' both advise to steer clear of landlords who don't want to meet you in person, or landlords who insist on sending the keys in the mail.

Hoops' and her friend will be more careful as they continue to search for an apartment. They have decided not to use Kijiji or Craigslist.

"I think it is better to go [into apartment buildings], get an application and do it yourself," she says.

Sellers beware

Brad Abernathy was on a different side of a rental scam. He listed his family's home on Kijiji. He is currently looking for someone to rent it out while he and his wife go on sabbatical next month.

He was surprised when two Dalhousie students showed up on his doorstep asking if they could see his house. They presented him with an email they had received about meeting to look at the place. A woman named Nicole, not Abernathy, wrote it.

Puzzled, Abernathy went to his computer. He found that his Kijiji account had been deregistered and that someone had re-listed the ad, reducing his asking price by 75 percent.

He called the police fraud line, but they said the only people could helpwere scam victims who sent money to fake landlords.

Abernathy was told that tenants who have already transfered money should call the fraud unit.

Despite this experience, he thinks sites like Kijiji and Craigslist are still very useful for students, but that buyers and renters should be careful.

Wynne-Jones says it's important to stay diligent when it comes to finding the right place, whether it is online or in person.

"It's really hard to find an apartment, way harder than it has ever been. But don't settle for something that doesn't seem right."

Comments

Decent article, although I'd point out that Kijiji was not around in the 1980s as the story suggests. Always remember on Kijiji: If you can't see or touch the merchandise ... if the person's not local ... if they even hint at Western Union or Moneygram ... it's a scam. There's no argument. Don't suck at Kijiji. Know your stuff.

Posted by You Suck At Kijiji | Jan 19, 2022 2:10 PM AT

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