Steal of a Deal: Experiencing Rental Fraud

March is Fraud Awareness Month and is an annual event that gives private and public organizations involved in the fight against fraud an opportunity to raise public awareness.

Fraud-related offences are now thought to be as profitable as drug-related offences, estimated to be worth $10 and $30 billion annually according to a news release by the RCMP’s Commercial Crime Branch.

We’ve all heard the popular adage that “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” So, let me tell you about my too-good-to-be-true experience.

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It happened a few years ago and started with a very simple search. I was living in Calgary at the time and looking to move. I wanted a one bedroom apartment within a certain price range. Location was a factor but not a deal breaker. Easy enough, right?

Low and behold, my search took me to an online ad for a beautiful condo for rent in my price range in the Beltline area. Some Calgarians might argue this is the heart of the city due to shopping and dining experiences. What young professional wouldn’t want to live there?

The building itself was spectacular. Twenty-three stories of floor to ceiling windows, heated underground parking, 24-hour front desk security, etc. The suite for rent really sweetened the deal. Granite counter tops, balcony with a view, utilities, internet and cable included, and fully furnished! Needless to say, it was a steal of a deal – pun intended.

The ad read that the owner had moved overseas to work for the next two years and didn’t want to sell his condominium. Instead, he was looking for a responsible, mature, young professional to move in and help pay the bills so he could afford to keep it while away. I thought I fit the bill. I would have two years to pay cheap rent, live in one of the trendiest and most appealing areas in Calgary, by myself, and I wouldn’t have to deal with the hassle and expenses of furnishings.

It seemed too good to be true and I couldn’t type an e-mail fast enough to find out more.

The e-mail I received in response was written poorly, not what I would expect from a professional being sent overseas by his company (consider this red flag #1). But I let it slide, thinking maybe he was in a hurry. After all, he was living overseas, right?

After a couple more pleasant e-mails, like any smart tenant would do before forking over a damage deposit and first month’s rent, I asked to see the place.

His reply said I would first need to wire him a certain amount of money (remember this point for later). Once he had received it, he would have the keys released to me. Consider this red flag #2. Then he added the pressure by saying he had other offers on the table and needed to decide quickly (red flag #3). Pressure is never a good thing.

To be safe, and at my parents recommendation, I contacted the property manager of the building to find out if there was a suite for rent by a person with the name I had from the e-mails. They informed me there wasn’t, and that whoever he or she was, had tried the same scam on 10-15 other people.

Retrospectively, I think I realized in the back of my mind that this was probably too good to be true but never once did rental fraud cross my mind. Fortunately, I had kept my parents in the loop and they saw the warning signs. It’s easier than I had ever imagined to become wrapped up in cases of ‘too good to be true’. Chalk it up to human nature.

For me, it was my parents that were the voice of reason but if you ever find yourself in a situation where you aren’t sure, don’t hesitate to ask someone for their opinion or call your local police service for their advice. It’s better to do this early than lose money later. These cases are very difficult to investigate and almost always result in the loss of money.

So what did I learn? Apart from always going with my gut instinct, I know that money sent via wire transfer can’t be recovered. I also learned that if a seller or buyer puts pressure on you and insists it is urgent or a onetime offer that will be lost if not acted upon immediately, it’s fraudulent. Legitimate companies may put pressure on you but the deal will likely still be there tomorrow.

The Economic Crime Section in our website says that, “typically the most vulnerable persons in society are also the most susceptible victims to this type of fraud; it is often the poor, desperate, lonely or the elderly that are most at risk.” I can add that anyone could be victim of fraud if they aren’t careful.

Many victims of fraud feel embarrassed or ashamed that they were taken advantage of. They shouldn’t. It can happen to anyone and talking about it, as I’ve done here, can help educate people and hopefully prevent the same thing from happening to them.

RentalScam.org has some tips on how to prevent becoming victim of rental fraud. I’ve included the checklist showing what I should have noticed earlier in my own experience.

  • Does the e-mail start out with Sir / Madam? Yes.
  • Are there misspellings in the e-mail? Yes.
  • Are there character mistakes in the e-mail? i.e Hello,my nameis Susie.Yes.
  • Is there excessive capitalization? No.
  • Does the e-mail reference God, UK, a cashier’s check, Doctor, Nigeria, Reverend, etc. No.
  • Is the e-mail from a free e-mail provider. e.g. Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail. Yes.
  • Does the e-mail refer to another person or agent? Yes.
  • Does the e-mail reference wanting to move in sight unseen? Yes.

According to this, I should have seen six red flags. Now I know better, and I hope you will too!

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For more information on scheduled activities for Fraud Awareness Month, please visit the websites of these and other organizations taking part:

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On Thursday, March 21, 2013, at 1:00 p.m., please join Det/Sgt. Dave Kozicki, myself and members of the RCMP for a Twitter chat on Fraud. Use the hashtag #FAM2013 to join the conversation or follow along. 

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